Nerve Classics

Body Work

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It was November, more than a year since I’d graduated college, and my fourth month in Manhattan. I’d blown through my savings before the first frost. Among other unwise choices, I’d recently traveled to New Jersey to be photographed for I was picked up at the train station, driven to a home decorated with stenciled wallpaper and offered a glass of white zinfandel from a jug. After five cups, I decided that kissing the belly dancer’s feet wasn’t half as fun as kissing Vanessa, the third foot model, and we ended up providing a free show for the videographers.

A month later, after I spent a day in Queens filing in the nude, my sister requested that if I was going to sell myself, I do it someplace where she wouldn’t worry I’d be raped or killed. So I answered a Craigslist ad for “artists” — full-time pay, part-time hours, no sex — and there I was, sitting with Robin in an Upper East Side diner at three in the afternoon, picking at my pancakes and talking about hand jobs.

Robin owns a massage parlor with an impressive zero-arrest record. This is mostly due to cautious advertising and her vigilance over the phone. A filmmaker from Kansas who came to New York for college, she started at Annette’s Escape as an employee, buying out the French owner ten years later. Now she’s remolding the place, bringing in young, educated, English-speaking types like myself, phasing out Annette’s remainders. By modest accounts, she personally pulls in about four grand in commissions a week — enough to outfit the two Annette’s branches with new Macs, fresh paint and Ikea furniture.

When we met, Robin was not the striking brunette with sexually suggestive tattoos I’d expected. She had bouncy blonde curls and cleavage that climbed from her retro red dress like half a cartoon heart. She looked less like a madam than a trendy student teacher prone to slipping the occasional curse word.

In the middle of our conversation, Robin answered her cell: “Hello? What’s your code? . . . What time were you thinking? Tonight we have Lisa, golden skin, long raven hair, warm brown eyes . . . yes, large on top, five-foot-three . . . she’s a dancer . . . okay, for how long? . . . Thanks, Mike.” She hung up and text-messaged Lisa before turning back to me. I’d later learn that although Robin stopped by AE from time to time to collect money or drop off supplies, she generally ran the business from home.

“That sounds like a lot of money for not a lot of work,” I said.

Robin smiled. “Do you have any other questions?”

“Yeah.” I ran my fork against the plate. “Does it — has it — like, made you lose faith — like, in men?”

“Actually,” she said, pursing her lips as if this was a reassurance she’d given many times,” just the opposite. I think it’s a really respectful way to get what they need, sexually. Without hurting anyone.”

“Yeah, I see that,” I said, but I didn’t see it, really. Not then.

I start work at Annette’s Upper East, a first-floor two-bedroom on a residential street. A narrow hallway connects the front room to a small back room just big enough for a massage table and space to move around it. The large front room is divided by a gauzy curtain. One side holds the massage table, stereo, oils and paper towels; the other has a desk and a chair where we’ll sit answering phones, flipping through a Rolodex to verify the existence of our gentlemen callers. Annette’s Midtown is a large studio where girls work alone. Newbies never start there.

Two girls work at AUE per shift. The air is damp and musty. Angela says it’s suffocating, so she leaves the bathroom window propped open. She’s the first girl I meet. When I walk in, she’s doing tricep dips off a chair in the corner. Men tell her she looks like Tyra Banks. This signifies nothing other than the fact that they haven’t slept with many black women.

Angela also teaches yoga and eats vegan, which is why she looks ten years younger than her actual age, thirty-three. She’s so decent she stores her sole set of trashy lingerie in a Whole Foods bag in the closet. She has a Stanford degree and an environmental government job. I love her. She takes her mental manipulation seriously and follows every tip she dispenses with a huge laugh.

“Give ’em a little squeeze when you hug them goodbye. I take notes to remember our conversations. I was thinking once,” she laughs, “If all my clients were in the same room and said Angela is BLANK,” she raises her palms, demonstrates the empty place waiting for an adjective. “The other guys would go: ‘What? Are we talking about the same Angela?'”

Her boyfriend doesn’t know, she says. She calls him her “young lover,” and laughs when she tells me this too.

We split the money with Robin. I get $120 for myself for each hour session. On one particularly well-tipped night, I earn $900. For the first few months, AE is my only job. I have no other way to account for my time. At first, I had a boyfriend, who didn’t ask about the cash. He had his own problems with work. He was twenty-eight, and I was watching him getting old in front of me. His decision to stop drinking and get promoted didn’t exactly jibe with my choices.

My first Monday night shift is with Sadie, and she scares the shit out of me. Her sharp Russian accent shoots at me like raw spit when she tells me I’m doing everything wrong, that I can’t even answer the phone properly. I feel eleven, naked in the communal showers at summer camp, boyish and awkward. Sadie is commanding: mid-twenties, tall and blonde, curvy like a Crumb cartoon, with wide blue eyes. She tells me to go to school because “this business could be busted any day and — poof! — then what will you do?”

After a few weeks together, I’ve learned how to answer the phone, and she begins offering me shards of herself: flashes of sadness when she talks about her family, a dreamy happiness after a profitable day. She flips through InStyle and Us Weekly and clicks her tongue at pictures of Britney Spears: “I don’t understand this girl.” Sadie is saving for school. In the meantime, she loves her “guy” and helps him study for his citizenship test.

Soon afterward I meet Camille, a twenty-seven-year-old Jersey girl who did stints at Rutgers and massage school. Now she wants to be a writer. “I just need more time,” she moans, pulling on a thin strand of thread that I imagine passes for underwear at Scores. “I just got so caught up in the nightlife, you know?” She’s supposed to train me in massage, but when I’m half-naked with her hands all over my back and her endless and endearing chatter, I just want to make out. She tells me a story: “So I’m seventeen and I have purple hair and I’m trying to fix my labia piercing, and my Mom walks in on me? I’m splayed on my bed with pliers between my legs and you know what she asks me? Are those your father’s pliers?

Simone is almost forty and already a bodywork legend. All winter, she dances in The Nutcracker, which means she blows off her shifts, coming in two hours or three drinks late. The first time I meet her is one of those days. Camille is in session, and I am waiting, agitated, on the massage table in the front room. Simone apologizes in a syrupy Southern accent. Her hair is in a bun pulled back from her face, which is a tight order of bones, ruddy cheeks and exaggerated eye makeup.

She’s been in the business for ten years, but her body remains childlike and resistant. One bored Sunday, I look through the closet for a lost shoe and find a Kleenex box filled with love letters to Simone. I want to feel voyeuristic and naughty reading them, but I think about the men who wrote them and instead I want to cry.

Robin punishes Simone periodically. One night, I take Simone’s withheld shift, and that’s how I meet Hailey. “I never have time to read my mail,” she says, dumping a grocery bag of catalogs and letters onto the desk and sorting through it. She extracts a pamphlet and explains that she wants to go to school to be a nutritionist. I know that Hailey is a singer-songwriter, because I’ve seen her CD, now scratched and oily. On the cover, Hailey’s face is imposed over a throbbing red moon, and she wears a crown of sticks. Her long blonde hair sits on her slender shoulders, which are obscured by ostensibly ethereal lettering. I wonder how she got interested in nutrition. I remember her telling me that she was eating more fruits and vegetables, which was making her feel a lot better “like, in general.”

We compare the lies we tell our boyfriends and our families, pursuing the perfect story to fit our hours and income: we hide cash in secret drawers and in our shoes on the train downtown. We leave our stilettos in the studio and shower often.

“He doesn’t need to know everything about me,” Sadie tells me. She sometimes runs to Thirty-Fourth Street at ten-thirty so her “guy” can pick her up from her alleged clerical job.

“Isn’t that the point of relationships?” I ask.

She clicks her tongue and flips the page of InStyle. “Girl, you have so much to learn.”

I want you to pay me for my beauty, I think it’s only right, Ani DiFranco sings in “Letter to a John,” which is on the CD we play all winter during sessions. Because I have been paying for it all of my life. After her, Leonard Cohen’s brassy baritone begins: “I smile when I’m angry, I cheat and I lie. I do what I have to do to get by. But I know what is wrong, and I know what is right, and I’d die for the truth in my secret life.”

Usually, it’s just massage. The clients want me to scratch their back and talk about politics with the adorable zest of a naked girl talking about politics. They want to hear stories of parties and movies and dreams and bisexual exploits. They like to imagine that we’re naive, desperate, insane, disturbed, or just hopelessly avant garde. These traits don’t exist in their lives. Most of them can come in three minutes. Anything else is bravado. I’d estimate an average of five inches hard, give or take. Some of them are cute. Decent, even.

“After 9/11,” Robin tells me, “I had clients crying on the table. Three or four times a day, crying.”

They don’t ask for blowjobs, and only sometimes for sex. Robin suggests we “channel high school, when your boyfriend would keep trying, and you’d be charming but still push him away.” If client did ask, I’d say okay — for $20,000 in college loans wiped clean. But even then, I’d be providing a service, not participating. Once an aggressive baseball player with firm arms wants to masturbate together, and I do, but I don’t come. That’s what they all want — for us to come too. Each client believes this desire is unique, that he’s the only one generous enough. If I like the guy, I’ll let him do it for a hundred extra bucks and a rubber glove.

One night, I’m in the front room when I hear Camille’s performance from the back. I edge toward the door, as close as I can get without tumbling in. It’s the first time I’ve felt truly wet inside the apartment. I’ve always suspected that men never take Camille as seriously as they ought to, and I want this to bother her, but right then, listening to her moan, I just want to lie on a massage table with my ass at the edge and her head between my thighs.

“So, when I was done masturbating and faking my orgasm,” Camille says later, grinning mischeviously, “I bent over, like, panting, and said ‘Thank you so much for sharing that with me.'” She winks and returns to the back room with a warm washcloth for the client.

When the phones have stopped ringing, we eat cheese cubes and drink chardonnay on the carpet. “Get them in the peak of their addiction,” Camille advises me, “when they have that dazed look in their eyes. Then you wring money out of them, twenty for this, twenty for that.”

On Sundays, Robin holds meetings. Once she brings a longtime client to dispense advice on evading arrest. He used to work in the D.A.’s office and tells us they can arrest us for absolutely nothing, but indictment is easy to avoid. Camille is still wearing her boots and denim minidress from the night before. “No one will arrest me,” she announces. “I’ll just be like, ‘Look at me, I’m innocent. I have braces!'”

The entertainment lawyer likes to lie on the massage table with me and talk. He’s kind, but too often he asks if I can sit near his face so he can smell me. Sometimes I let him, but the whole thing feels so ridiculous that I usually make a joke and hop off. Once, I ask him about his wife and he answers: “She’s my best friend, but she’s not into sex. I plan to seduce her at some point in the next year or two.”

I laugh. He’s confused. “It’s just funny,” I tell him, “The way that you put it.” He takes Zoloft, and even though he comes in for two-hour sessions, he rarely orgasms. He says he likes the build-up, even if it lasts for weeks.

He knows I’m bi, and he asks which AE girl I’m most attracted to. “They’re all so beautiful,” I gush. I feel guilty about this. When he asks again, I say “Emily.” I know he likes her, and I’m hoping for my favorite job: the double session. You make out with a hot girl and get paid two hundred an hour.

The lawyer agrees to the double. Emily comes in. Her hair and skin smell like Marlboro Menthols and I wonder if she’s faking it. I wonder, often, how much of actual sex is just faking it so well that you even fool yourself.

“When I watch you with each other,” he purrs, stroking his dick,”I imagine one day you’ll do these things to me.”

I giggle and bite Emily’s shoulder, wrap my legs around her waist. Emily runs her fingers over my nipples and all this feels right, somehow. She sees that deviant pit in my gut — the one that propels me toward parties destined for disaster, dates with incompatable lunatics, cross-country road trips to visit friendly enemies, every relationship I’ve had before this one (alluringly and endearingly unhealthy, co-dependent, romantically destructive, doomed).

“Susie’s too good for her boyfriend,” the lawyer tells Emily. “We need to find her someone else.”
The next day, I go to the East Village to visit a girl I used to kiss. Her name is Susie; outside of Annette’s, mine isn’t. We eat steamed vegetables and smoke pot. When I step outside to call my boyfriend I tell him I’m going to the corner store to get candy, and like everything else these days, it’s almost true.

Our office Christmas party is held in a Murray Hill loft that belongs to Robin’s gay photographer friend. There are drinks and cheese trays, the works. I imagine it isn’t much like the party my boyfriend is attending with his finance buddies. I hang out with Emily. She’s twenty-six, a painter with an Ivy League M.F.A. With brown bangs and round features, she’s pretty and self-deprecating and commands the kind of attention I do when I’m comfortable in a room. I see that she probably strikes people as either overbearing or charming. I chose the latter, as I often do, because that’s my type, regardless of gender.

A week later, we work together. In her black bikini, she’s a different person, a shark’s fin breaking through water. She says all her paintings are about fucking. I stare at the tattoos embracing her biceps and wish her fingers were inside me.

“My Mom and me came out to each other at the same time,” she says.

“Your Mom is gay?” I ask.

“Yeah, so it was easy.”

“My Mom’s gay too,” I say, incredulous.

“Seriously? That’s crazy.”

Emily was single when we started working together. Now she lives with a girlfriend. Her girlfriend knows about Annette’s; her mom, of course, does not. None of our mothers do.

I hear Renee also has a dyke mom. Renee is twenty-six, an artist, dark, angular and thin like one of those Parisian women in the old cigarette ads. She’s either mysterious or just plain flighty. On the phone to clients, she describes me in her husky seductress tones as having a body just like hers, but with “nice, wide hips.” I think this means that I’ve got an ass and she’s one long bone. She won’t talk about herself or her mom. She calls me “sweetie” and touches me while she speaks.

“What do you think it is?” I say on the phone to Emily one painfully slow day. “I mean, four of us?

That’s absolutely not a typical ratio.”

“There’s always been a lot of dykes in sex work,” Emily says.

“I know.” I doodle over the schedule, drawing breasts that look like bowling balls. “I think it’s just like — we step out of the sexual norm? We have to be more flexible from the get-go, because we’re already classified as deviants?”

“I think what we do is great,” she says. It takes me a second to figure out what specifically she’s referring to there. “It can tire me, but I love it.”

Emily hangs up, and I draw a line connecting one grotesque breast to the other, a sexual barbell. As a kid, I idolized Amelia Earhart, Joan of Arc — lunatics who dressed up in knickers. I was always the dirtiest girl at recess. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, my Mom told me.

“If you can’t beat them, beat their dicks and take their money,” I tell Emily.

“Yeah, don’t,” Angela said when I told her on my first day that I’d originally been thinking about stripping. “The managers can be awful, and they’re usually men. This is so much better. Here, you control the situation. You own it.”

“You went so fast to last resort!” my boyfriend yells. “You could’ve applied to different restaurants, or something!”

“It’s not a last resort,” I say through a stupid fog of tears. “Do you think it was better for me to waitress? To spend three hours cleaning chairs while I was having a panic attack over the papers I had to write? To work for that perv of a manager?”

“Well, at least you wouldn’t be giving him a handjob. It’s dirty.

“Life is dirty,” I tell him. “A handjob’s honest.”

“Get your dirty hands off of me,” he says, pushing me away. He’s never done this before. I slip out of myself, stare from the other side of his small bedroom. I can’t stomach his judgment. I don’t want it on me. At work the next day, I feel like he’s followed me there, holding my soul between his fingers like a goldfish over a toilet bowl. We make plans to “talk.” I scribble all day in my notebook, preparing my manifesto. I quote Whores and Other Feminists, which I bought at Bluestockings along with Slut! and The Beauty Myth. My sister laughed: “This is your get-over-him reading list? We already have two copies of The Beauty Myth, you know.”

I tell my boyfriend that I don’t like lying, that I was often emotionally torn but never politically torn. I tell him it’s not cheating, not to me, because I’m not involved, it’s not a two-way street. I tell him that making up to $700 a day and having the rest of the week to work on my films is a godsend. I accuse him of hypocrisy: wasn’t he a bit of a strip-club junkie? I tell him that as a man, he has no right to judge me. I remember what an asshole I was to my Mom when she tried to tell me all this stuff before. I remember hating her because she wouldn’t shave her armpits and how that made all the preppy girls from field hockey — with their bake-sale moms and hair ribbons — think I was that weird, too. I remember sitting in the Corolla with my sister while my Mother was inside her ex’s apartment, fighting, I guess, about secrets. When she came back with a Sears bag of clothing, my sister asked nice, caring questions. I acted bored and irritated, listening to the Bangles on my Walkman in the back seat.

My boyfriend holds my letter in his hand gingerly, like it’s a job offer he’s not certain he can accept. He leaves, and instead of throwing myself on the bed and sobbing, I feel a hell of a lot better.

A few days later, he calls. He has confused my essay with a request for reuinification. He’s over it, he says.

“I don’t want a relationship right now,” I tell him.

“Is that why you told me about your job?” he asks.

Yes. “No,” I reply.

In April, Robin buys new computers for the offices and I start reading the internet history, looking at what sites the other girls visit when they sit at the desk. Explorer keeps the information in a pull-down menu for a week, or until I erase it after my shift. All the girls, even the ones who seem the most content, are looking for more — apartment listings, personal ads, jobs as secretaries or models.

When summer begins, Robin starts replacing the girls we’ve lost, such as Tami, Hailey and Laurie, a blonde film student who vanished in March. In February, Robin had given Francesca’s Midtown shift to me after “taking great pleasure in firing” Francesca for leaving the candles burning overnight three weeks in a row, but now I’m cutting my Upper East shift with Sadie because I’m working at a film-production company.

I like the midtown office. I have time to do work between clients, and the place is spacious and clean with big windows that lead to a fire escape where I sneak cigarettes and breathe. I can dance naked while I mop. I don’t have to describe the other girl when a client calls. It’s me, baby, take it or leave it.

I remember how, at first, I felt as if I were always at Annette’s. I felt addicted to it sometimes, like I needed it. Now it fits neatly on my shelf, like the musical-theater soundtracks I’ve shoved behind the intellectual hip-hop — it’s only there if you look for it.

“You never worry about being some old spinster?” my sister asks me. She worries about it all the time.

“I dunno, I figure that if I ever really want to get married, there’ll be someone. I have like, three or four backup guys.”

“God,” she sighs. “How did you get so confident? Is it because of your job?”

I shrug. I used to love the power trip of eyeing a man, choosing him, reeling him in. Now I get that affirmation constantly. “Maybe,” I smile. “You should try it.”

“Yeah, right,” she says, slapping her generous ass, which has the same bump and curve as our mother’s. “I don’t think anyone would pay to see this.”

“That’s the thing,” I say, holding both of her palms like I’m handing wisdom to the Karate Kid.

“They totally would.”

Without the need for validation, I’m no longer certain I like men more than I like women. I’m not positive that I even want to marry one.

I meet a boy in a bar. I kiss him because I want to. He tastes like beer, but I let him take me home because he’s hot and I’m horny. When he tells me I’m sexy, I laugh and cover his words with my mouth. After a few weeks, there are no sparks, so I let him loose.

I meet a girl through a friend. She’s an athlete, she wants a massage, I straddle her on her bed in the dark and do what I can. When her hands wander, I have no urge to swat them away like I’ve done to four men at work that same day. Instead I ease up, let her flip over and face me, and then I meet her there. I grab her hair, kiss her, grab her breast; everything is electric.

I used to blast “I Want You to Want Me” when I got ready to go out. Now I detest that song. These days I listen to Jessica Simpson doing “These Boots Were Made For Walking,” in earnest.

In two weeks, I turn twenty-four. I’ve made a man orgasm from kicking him in the balls and brought another to climax by tying him to a coat rack with a necktie and sticking a dildo up his ass.

Sometimes dicks are like peppermills I grind to pay the rent, and sometimes they’re just good company. I’m jaded, but I’d rather be jaded than needy. I can watch porn by myself and not feel dirty. I’m harder to get into bed, but I think that’s a good thing.

“Does it make you have less faith in men?” My sister’s friend asks me at dinner one night. “Does it make you hate them?”

“Not really.” I say. “I’ll let you know in a few years.”

“What if you meet someone?” she asks.

“I’d understand if they wanted me to quit. I’d quit for the right person, I think.”

“Maybe the right person wouldn’t want you to quit.”

I shrug. When I worked in a restaurant, other waitresses would tell me that people shouldn’t be allowed to dine out until they’ve waited tables. Now, when I meet boys, I think about whether I’ll ever tell them about my job. I wonder if they’ll find out that I already know their secrets.

This article originally appeared in Nerve’s Personal Essays.