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Sex in Zion

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS
Sex in Zion

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It was my first day working the phones at an escort service in Salt Lake City, and Violet, a perky, nineteen-year-old redhead, returned from her date looking like she’d just stepped off the stage of a high-school musical.
    “How was it?” I asked.
    “He was a Mo, so he had some hang-ups.”
    “He was gay?” I had just moved from San Francisco.
    “What? Oh. No, he was Mormon. He had his garmies on,” she said.

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    Garmies, she explained, were sacred undergarments that devout Mormons wore under everything, a cotton undershirt and shorts to their knees to protect them from the world. Magical. Secret. Steve Young, the 49ers quarterback, received special permission to take them off when he played football.
    “He didn’t want me to look at him,” said Violet. She was “Jack Mormon” — someone who grew up in the faith but no longer went to church. Lapsed. Wayward. Like many of the escorts. “But I think he had fun.”
    I added garmies to my growing inventory of Mormonisms: wards and stakes and family home evenings, the Prophet and President, coffers underneath the city, a fourteen-year-old farm-boy mystic, golden tablets, solemnized marriages, everlasting life, the second coming of Christ. To me, it was fascinating. To everyone else, it was well-trod ground.

I was working on an MFA at the University of Utah when I answered the classified ad for a phone manager at an “entertainment company.” Flexible hours, good pay, fun environment! I had just been dumped by my long-distance boyfriend of five years. I was reeling and alone, and what I wouldn’t have done in San Francisco seemed like a great idea in Salt Lake.
    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) projects a well-finessed image of clean-cut optimism, modesty, a

I was fingerprinted and interviewed by a detective who talked of perverts, bestiality and sin.

strong work ethic and family values. About three-fourths of Utah residents belong, and for most of them, Mormonism is a lifestyle steeped in self-control: no alcohol, no tobacco, no caffeine, no premarital or extramarital sex, no R-rated movies, no MTV, no sunbathing, no masturbation. Life is everlasting, and marriage performed in a temple is “sealed” for eternity. Young people, sixty thousand at any given time, are traveling the world on two-year missions.
    And there are stranger aspects to the faith which members are less inclined to discuss with outsiders: Many believe in a star named Kolob around which God’s throne physically orbits, and that Christ’s return is imminent (he’s headed for Missouri). And of course, there’s the matter of polygamy, which the church publicly disavowed in 1890 as a condition of Utah’s statehood, but which thousands still practice in insular fundamentalist sects.
    Unlike in most of America, escort agencies in Salt Lake City are not covers for prostitution. They are tightly regulated by a lengthy list of ordinances and kept in line by frequent sting operations, making each encounter a navigation of semantics and what seem at times to be arbitrary regulations. Suffice it to say, there is nudity and gratification, but no sex.
    When I went to the courthouse to apply for my Sexually Oriented Business License from the city, the cheerful clerk’s smile slid downward when she saw what I was applying for. I was fingerprinted and interviewed by a detective who talked of perverts, bestiality, sin and the awful things that could happen to girls sent to meet strange men in hotel rooms. He handed me a pamphlet that began: She drives carefully, but as fast as she can. She reaches for a piece of gum. It will do until she gets home and scrubs that taste and filth from her mouth.
    When I stopped reading, he looked so disappointed in me that I thought I might apologize and tell him I would get an office job instead. When I didn’t, he stood and sighed with resign. “Well, at least you’ll just be on the phones.” As I shuffled out he told me to call him with “any suspected pedophile” who requested the youngest girl.
    There are seedy parts of Salt Lake City, but Executive Escorts wasn’t located in one of them. The office was in the shadow of the looming granite spires of the LDS Temple, the symbolic heart of Mormonism, two blocks off the square in an unmarked office on an alley next to a parking garage. Inside was a small, mismatched lounge with an outdated Zenith, a counter and a wooden desk with two old push-button phones. Paul, the owner, drove a bronze Jaguar and wore shiny silk suits. He was an Albanian immigrant who’d landed in Utah by chance fifteen years earlier, after his cousin had proclaimed it the U.S. state with the most entrepreneurial opportunities.
    On the wall he had posted a typo-riddled list:

Can’t Do: intercourse, handjobs, blowjobs, any touching of sexual areas, give a massage, masturbate, encourage masturbation (just don’t say anything about it).

I think they got hooked on not ever getting quite enough. The principle of self-control.

Can Do: kiss, cuddle, caress, tease, strip, take a shower, nibble on ears, give a bubble bath, tell sexy stories, play with his nipples, sexy poses, get a massage, model lingerie, talk dirty, role play, tickle, talk about fantasies, lick chocolate off him, kiss his thighs, put on baby oil, moan and groan, tell secrets, tell jokes, dance, kiss his neck, lick his nipples, have your toes sucked and do anything else not on the can’t do list.

    “Girls who escort in other states I don’t hire,” Paul said on my first day of work. “Because you can’t go backwards, they are too easily tempted to give a handjob for a little extra.”
    I punched my timecard, took my seat behind the desk and waited for the phone to ring.
    “I can send a lovely young lady to see you,” I purred to the first caller. “She can dance, model lingerie, do a little striptease. She can role-play or fantasy-talk. For a gratuity she can kiss and caress. Of course, this is for entertainment purposes only. There is no sex involved and no touching of sexual areas.”
    It was a first-time caller. He expressed disbelief.
    “We are a legal escort agency,” I explained. “But you won’t be disappointed. No one ever complains.”
    And they didn’t. Most of the business was repeat customers, local Utah men. Mainly white and white-collar, many married and Mormon, ranging in age from eighteen to eighty. I think they got hooked on not ever getting quite enough. The principle of self-control. A pretty girl who laughed at their jokes and listened and made no demands.

     

  

 PERSONAL ESSAYS

  

     

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    At twenty-eight, I was older than most of the girls. They counted on me to tell them to be careful, to save money, to take their vitamins, to have a plan. I once told an escort named Mimi — who’d just blown her day’s earnings on a dress — that there was more to life than new outfits and attention from boys. She replied, only half jokingly, “You’re just jealous.”
    Jenna, with Nordic light hair and eyes, was from Bountiful, home to the purest of Mormons and the recently prosecuted Kingston polygamist clan. She was kicked out of her parents’ house at thirteen for smoking pot and had been living on her own ever since. She started busing tables, then she was a hostess, a waitress, and, at eighteen, an escort. She wore short skirts and swore like a sailor, proud to have escaped her oppressive upbringing. But she also seemed caught in the throes of delayed adolescence, a little innocent, a girl who’d never been outside of Salt Lake.
    Michelle was twenty-five, married with a five-year-old daughter. She used to live in Utah but her husband was in the Navy and

When she pulled up her skirt and pulled down her underwear, he ejaculated. Ten minutes max.

they had moved to Southern California. She flew to Salt Lake two weekends each month, and she was always booked backed-to-back. Naturally tall and blond and unnaturally buxom, she did everything by the rules and was always on time. She dressed as if on her way to a bank meeting. Men liked her poise and polish. They liked that they could have met her at work. She told me her husband thought she was a part-time flight attendant. She even had a fake uniform.
    Nicky was nineteen, with long black hair and green eyes. Her parents were from Bolivia and had become Mormon after meeting some missionaries. Later, they’d moved to Ogden. She, like Jenna, was Jack Mormon. One of her regulars was a seventy-year-old man who came to the door nude. When she pulled up her skirt and pulled down her underwear, he ejaculated. Ten minutes max. $120 (half went to the house) plus $50 tip.
    I knew the escorts’ real names because I needed to know how to ask for them if their parent, roommate or boyfriend answered the phone. I never used their real names in the office. As close as we seemed at times, we were still on the job, and they were escorting out of necessity, most of them covertly. There was shame just underneath their bravado. The escorts depended upon the legality of what they were doing. They saw themselves as professionals, as actresses.
    I once heard Paul say to one of them, “Don’t you see how it is? You are Meryl Streep.”

The usual escort date took place in a hotel room downtown. One of the favorites was Little America, a tidy place where LDS families stayed when they made pilgrimages to Brigham Young’s grave. I sent Jenna there to meet a man on his lunch break. Young and married — he kept his ring on — he told her he had two kids. His seeming lack of embarrassment about being married was one of the curious things about some Mormon clients, one that I think hints at the lingering legacy of polygamy. Although the church now strictly espouses one man and one woman, Mormons still believe that God did grant Joseph Smith permission to have multiple wives two hundred years ago, which might help rationalize straying from one’s wife today.
    Jenna sat on the bed next to him and they talked for a while until he got more comfortable. They nuzzled. He took off his pants and got under the covers. She danced around and took off her clothes and rolled around the bed, just out of reach. He masturbated. They kissed some more and talked until I called her out of the date. She said he was nice and wasn’t weird and gave her a decent tip. It was, she said, the best a date could be.

Because I had gone to college, Paul liked to run his business ideas by me. They were never good.
    “I was thinking I could open one of these in San Francisco,” he said. “You’re from there. You could help me get it off the ground. What do you think?”
    “One of these, meaning a no-sex experience?”
    “Well, yes. A legal service.”
    “Paul, you can pay for any type of sex you can dream up in San Francisco. Why would someone pay not to have sex if there are other options?”
    He looked genuinely perplexed and disappointed. For the owner of a sex business, he was endearingly chaste.
    “I go to the strip club sometimes because it’s dark,” he told me. “I don’t like when they take everything off. If the dancer has an interesting face, I’ll watch that.”

I entertained hackneyed Pretty Woman fantasies even as his calls grew too frequent, too persistent and too creepy.

I was flirty on the phone because it helped men commit to dates, but it was also a way for me to experiment without having to follow through. Sam, a carpenter from Provo, was someone who called just to talk with me. At first I liked having a fan. He was good-natured and quick to laugh. He pushed me to meet him. I entertained hackneyed Pretty Woman fantasies about how he was different, about how we might go on a real date, even as his calls grew too frequent, too persistent and too creepy.
    “Hi, Beautiful,” he said over the phone one afternoon, about six months after I’d started working there.
    “Hey, Sam,” I said.
    “I saw you yesterday.”
    “Oh, come on now.”
    “No, I did. I waited for you to come out of the office. I knew it was you,” he said.
    “I don’t think it was me. You don’t know what I look like.”
    “Black top, blue plaid skirt, tall black boots.”
    I felt sick.
    “Nice gams,” he said. “I liked watching you.”
    I hung up.
    The next night I noticed a pickup truck behind me as I pulled out of the alley. I turned, and it turned. I switched lanes, and it followed. I started to panic. I didn’t have a cellphone to call the police so I kept driving away from my house, turning at random, hyperventilating. In my rear-view mirror, I could see only a silhouette of a man in the driver’s seat. Stopped at a light on 400 South, adrenaline pushing me forward, I floored it left through a red light. Oncoming cars blocked his turn and I left him behind.
    I quit the agency the next day.

The last time I was in Salt Lake, I drove by the Executive Escorts office. It was gone, an insurance company in its place.
    Perhaps the Temple had cast too chilly a shadow, or maybe Paul was giving it a go in San Francisco after all. Today I live in Madison, Wisconsin, where going out on the town means a day at the farmers market. I think about the escort agency a lot. It was, in a sense, my rebound relationship, a surrogate. I left it feeling less worried about being what someone else wanted me to be, of how I looked naked, of being desirable. It helped me to understand, finally, that we’re all just bodies looking for connection.
    I miss the girls and the feeling that I was in on something with them, even as I know I was dabbling and they were not. I wonder if Michelle ever told her husband she wasn’t a flight attendant or if Violet ever went to massage-therapy school. The youngest escorts who’d worked there when I did are now twenty-five, and I wonder if they went back to the Mormon life they grew up in, got married, had babies and left escorting far behind.
    I wonder if they still think about it, though, when they see men look at them, drive past a certain hotel or hear their escort names. And sometimes I wonder if they ever think about me.  

  

     



©2006 Rae Meadows and Nerve.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rae Meadows’ stories have appeared in Mississippi Review, Flyway, 580 Split and Fine Print. Her first novel, Calling Out, will be published this month by MacAdam/Cage. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin and Brooklyn, New York.