When I tell Jean Louis over the phone upon my return to America that I’ve decided to become a prostitute, he says: “You risk your health, your life?”
“No, no,” I tell him. “It’s safe. They have a bouncer. It’s in a parlor.” I found it in the phonebook, under Massage Parlors. I called all the places listed until one of the people answering didn’t ask me if I was “licensed.” He used a tone both guarded and insinuating, finally asking if I wanted to come “audition.”
I’ve wanted to be a prostitute for as long as I can remember. I’ve wanted to be Rhett’s warm, wisecracking prostitute friend in Gone
With The Wind, not Scarlett — she had better makeup, velvety-er clothes. Prostitutes fight with all the girls who don’t enter their little gang, their faction (and the prostitutes always win!), and they make cold, sad men come alive. Perhaps becoming a prostitute will arm me, too, with zinging comebacks and a hidden, smart tenderness.
Jean Louis writes that he understands that I’m “nineteen, walking bitch and beautiful down thin time, like thin panty between your stalking legs.” Did he mean “stocking-ed legs?” I choose “stalking!” Everyone in my family is pretty ugly. I don’t have great bone structure or anything — you can tell already I’m going to be tired-looking when I’m older. It’s pure youth and sexfulness that I possess, mixed with fear and pleasure. The mess of it all quivers on my skin and in my walk. When I catch my reflection in a store window, it stops me dead in my tracks! I know this beauty belongs to nineteen, not to me. It feels like it was given to me by mistake, and its rightful owner will return at any moment. I want to really do something with it, while I have it. The operatic shows I’ve been doing are too confusing and repulsive for anyone to see what I actually look like. And I can’t be a dancer because I have no rhythm. I’d like to be an acrobat, but I’m not strong enough. Looks like being a prostitute is the only option.
I stare out the window on the long ride up I-95 to the little brick cathouse. The last leaf has fallen, and the trees are once again frozen silver lightning bolts rising up out of the ground. It’s a new world.
I meet my first trick mere days before turning twenty. He’s at least sixty years old. Maybe seventy. Maybe eighty! He shakes off the cold and pays the first hundred dollars in the little “office” that the front door immediately opens into (I believe it was the foyer, when a family formerly lived here). He enters the big-screen-TV room, where a half-dozen of us bra-and-pantied or bathing-suit-and-pantyhosed ladies sit around waiting. (I’m in a black and crimson contraption that looks like tangled kite string with no kite.) We shift into our “pick me!” poses. Mine entails sitting up straight, like a meerkat. The more beautiful the girl, the less she poses. Candy, who looks like a perfect plastic doll, practically turns her back on the poor old man. He lifts his hand sort of in my direction, so I leap up and show him where the showers are, down in the basement, like I’d been taught in my ten-minute “training session.” Then I show him where my hot, tiny room is, and ask him to meet me there after his shower.
A previous occupant taped a piece of lavender tissue paper over my ceiling’s rectangular fluorescent light. A framed poster of a Corvette is shiny under glass, looking ready to take off. My old man, moist from his shower, comes in and lays down on the rickety “massage table” on his back, his towel falling partly open. He seems a little embarrassed and a little joyful. I watch in the wall-size mirror in disbelief as I move confidently across his mass of soft, furry, Silly Putty skin. An hour or so later, he pauses, in his unbuttoned shirt and unbelted pants, considering. He reaches into his wallet and pulls out an extra hundred, on top of the hundred he already put on the table, “for being so sweet.”
As soon as the old man and I emerge from that room, another man comes in and points to me. This one looks just like Frankenstein. Candy squeezes my hand. I try to show him the showers but he refuses. Meekly, I re-enter my room, and Frankenstein closes the door behind us. He’s big. “They’re going to hear us,” he says. I can’t tell from his expression whether he’s pleased about that or not. I wonder what he has in mind that will be so noisy.
“They don’t care,” I say.
“Of course they don’t,” sneers Frankenstein. “They’re whores. Get undressed.”
I comply. He stares hard at my naked body, which I nervously try to cover before realizing how silly that is in this situation. He asks me if this is my first night, and I say yes.
“I mean, this your first time? You never fuck any of your boyfriends? How old are you — sixteen?”
“Liar,” he growls. “Get down on the ground.”
After it’s over, he takes two twenties and a ten out of his wallet and lets them flutter down onto my body. “Always get your money first, little girl,” he grins. “Not all guys are as nice as me.”
Frankenstein is not the only creep ever to pick me, but he is the only one I don’t know how to handle. Quickly, I get as wisecracking and as slippery as my childhood fantasy prostitute — but only with someone trying to put something over on me. Most of my clients are great. I love that my life consists of sucking a businessman’s cock at five, relieving a probably mentally retarded gas station attendant of his virginity at six, and peeing into the mouth of a perfectly elegant man of independent means at 7:30. I love joking with Candy and Sandy — who is getting on in years and gets back at me for having more clients than her by slyly dumping small amounts of cigarette ash in my room after I vacuum and then telling Carl, our pimp, that I didn’t vacuum at all. I love rolling my eyes at Carl, who wears a cowboy hat and dyes his gray hair black and strums a guitar. Most of all I love my time in the little room under the engine-racing Corvette poster.
I get to change my personality five times a night, stepping into other people’s ideals. I can guess — from a man’s greeting, from his clothes, his eyes — who his dream woman is, and I become her. I take on her bearing, her speech, her interests. It’s a lot like my shows, except I don’t have to come up with my own character or new rhymes. The men’s fantasies aren’t particularly unique: one wants a dominatrix, one a naïve girl, one a sophisticated companion, one a filthy slut, one a kind ear. Even the dialogue men respond to (meaning: their penis goes boi-i-ing) is canned: “You’ve been a bad, bad boy.” “I’ve been a very bad girl.” “Put your money on the table and shut your mouth.” “Oh really — Alaska? Tell me everything!” But to say all those things sincerely, to be that person for twenty minutes . . . to zing from one personality to another, and to make come fly all over the room . . . this brings me happiness, in the same way the shows do; escape from awareness of self. Unlike touring, though, it also brings me thousands of dollars a week.
Though I’m happy, sadness is in the air. All the girls but me are on drugs. While I occasionally indulge in my time off, I don’t want my vision clouded while on the job. I am curious about the people who would come to a prostitute, or be a boyfriend to a prostitute and pick her up at the end of her shift and take her home. I soberly watch everything and everyone, including myself. All the girls but me have been here a long time. I can see that it gets hard after a while — or at least very weird — to live inside other people’s dreams. In Candy’s case, she literally lives, and drives, off of other people’s use of her beauty. Her sporty little car and her spacious, bright apartment are both paid for with one-hour sessions each month, to the car dealer and the landlord. The drugs are always gifts, or trades, as well. Along with hundred-dollar restaurant meals and concert tickets. Prostitution isolates you, with all its little ways that people not in it don’t understand, much in the way some religions do, or drug addictions. It’s hard to explain certain things, and after a while it’s easier to not talk to anyone outside much at all. I thought that as a prostitute, I would no longer be inside a dream; I’d be flung, newly sharp and capable, into life. Actually, I discover, the opposite is true. Prostitution is a complex, shared dream where everyone agrees to not wake up, for just a little longer.
“Home,” too is filled with people on drugs. Heroin, mostly. I’m living on Jeff and Angela’s couch again; dozens of skull candles watch me sleep, and living, skull-faced visitors tiptoe around muttering non sequiturs. Angela is always puffy from sleep, since she’s always just waking up. If anything, it makes her even more beautiful. Her face looms slightly closer than is comfortable, the tips of her hair tickling my shoulder. Her soft, gentle face is trusting, but I do not trust her.
There’s simplicity to winter. Everyone is hiding.
I come home from a hard night’s work and ten or twelve men and women in uniforms bust down the door right behind me and start hollering. Lights glint off the silver things scattered about their outfits: buckles and pins and cuffs. (In Kentucky, policemen once burst with all their flashlights into a house where Jean Louis and I were playing a show, and I thought someone had turned on a strobe light . I just kept dancing, naked, feeling like David Bowie in 1976, until finally the owner of the house yanked me into the bathroom and had me hide in the tub under a bunch of dirty clothes.)
Jeff, Angela and I are forced into separate rooms. It’s as if these small town officers saw a movie of a bust and are trying to copy it. They shine lights in our eyes and demand to know where the drugs are. They tell me I’m not the one they’re really after, and they’ll let me off easy if I cooperate — but they’ll take me down too if they have to. I open my eyes really wide and feel innocent. I’m scared and bored at the same time. It lasts so long, the questions and the lights. Three officers have me — a tall woman, a meaty man, and a stringy man. One says one thing and another something else, like that they’ll let me go, no they won’t let me go. I’ve been waiting for this — when I would be tested and find out if I was a hero or a rat — since I was five years old. My father was tortured in Mexico, hung upside down over a giant pot of other people’s vomit and dunked into it, and still he didn’t tell on anyone. I often daydreamed that I was in that position and worse: “They” tied me up in a burlap sack and took turns whacking me with bats; “they” raped me and sniggered. Still, I never told.
It is disappointingly easy in real life to not say anything incriminating. Of course, the New Hampshire Police Force doesn’t have a vat of vomit.
The drugs are on the top shelf of Jeff’s bedroom closet normally, but he just happened to be all out on the day of the bust. I was due to buy five hits of acid from someone else that morning, but the dealer didn’t show. That was the best time I ever got stood up in my life. I was really lucky once before. In Germany, a fan insisted on giving me several packets of heroin. Unlike stimulants or psychedelics, which open you up, I never liked narcotics, which shut you down.
But it seemed to mean so much to him, I would have felt rude turning him down, so I took the packets and told him I’d do them on the train. Then I forgot I had the stuff on me until, in the bathroom, one of the packets fell out of my pants pocket, and I flushed them all down the toilet. Upon my return from the bathroom, by coincidence, I saw German police roughing Jean Louis up. They made me stand against a train wall while they searched every inch of our luggage and bodies. They were incensed by our combination of glitter and dirt, and they just knew there was something wrong when they unrolled our weird backdrop, but they couldn’t put their finger on where we’d broken a law, so they had to let us go. If I’d still had the heroin on my person, I wonder if I’d be a resident of Germany even now — in jail!
Jeff and Angela are taken to the station and booked, due to pot resin found in their bedroom ashtray. I get to stay in the scary skull basement all alone that night, but my diary takes a ride downtown. Jeff and Angela are released on their own recognizance. There’s a write-up in the Foster’s Daily Democrat, which Jeff cuts out and frames. In court, it comes out that the officers read my diary aloud to each other every day at lunch. I can’t be prosecuted for the prostitution described therein (in great detail!) because of some illegal seizure rule. When I go to the police station to claim the diary, all the cops pour out of the back rooms to look me over.
While I attend the school of soft knockers and hard transactions, Rachel is studying plant biology in Philadelphia. She comes home for Christmas and finds me much changed: reserved. “Distant and proud” — that’s how she phrases it. I don’t giggle anymore.
Rachel got a job through the university killing experimented-on mice. There isn’t a lot of money for the program, she tells me, and so she has to kill them by taking them by the tail and whacking them against the wall. Sometimes it takes several whacks. One day she took pity on a mouse and smuggled him home. Within twelve hours, his eyes started leaking black, and he screamed — or did what mice do for screams — all night long until Rachel did to that mouse in her free time what she did to others while on the clock.
That reminds me of how I have sex these days: it feels like bringing my work home. I can’t even masturbate. It feels too quiet. I need that third party now: me, the person I’m with, and the person I imagine they are imagining. Sex for me — after only a few months on the job! — is only about becoming. I no longer know what I am when there aren’t strangers around whose minds I can read and holograph myself into. I feel downright ridiculous having sex just as me! At first, I was hiding my personality at will. Now I think I’m actually losing it. I buy a ticket for France. I have to quit my job because I like it too much.
No one still “in life” will talk about it, and it seems like those who left will only talk about the bad side. But as I walk away from prostitution and drug addicts and gain back my own life and body, I know I’m losing something too. I lose nothingness.
I lose the concealed passageway I found into other people’s something-ness. The lights in the airport are so white! I’m not even on the plane yet, and already I miss everything I’m leaving behind: the somber lighting, the camaraderie with the girls, everyone being awake with you while the rest of the world sleeps. I miss the drifting conversation of people who are high. I miss my clients; I miss being on top and being nothing, being only what I can see in their eyes, always new.
Lots of underground front-women strip: Jennifer from Royal Trux, Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill, Courtney Love — just tons of them! None of them admit to being an out-and-out prostitute, but I hear some are. Did they, like me, want to squeeze all they could out of the mantle of beauty they found by surprise around their shoulders one morning?
Someone on Jenny Jones said that seventy percent of girls abandoned by their fathers turn to promiscuity and drugs. If fifty percent of our parents divorced, and ninety percent of the mothers got custody, that would at least look like abandonment to ninety percent of fifty percent — and seventy percent of that equals thirty-one point five percent. So, one out of three — that’s how many of us Gen X girls, according to my calculations, should have turned out slutty drug dabblers.
I think Jenny Jones should add “really creative” to that set of descriptors. My reading of art history books tells me that abandonment has always led to advanced creativity. The greatest periods of art flowering have also been the most precarious periods for children. In Greece, when the arts, politics, and philosophies were exploding, inconvenient babies were regularly “exposed” — left to die. And then in the Renaissance . . . well, let’s look at Michelangelo and Da Vinci. Michelangelo was sent off to a wet nurse as soon as he was born, and didn’t see his mother again till he was two; then she went and died on him when he was six. Da Vinci was a love child who was given up at the age of four by his peasant mother when his rich father married. Freud describes Mona Lisa’s smile as holding “the promise of unbounded tenderness and at the same time sinister menace.” That’s how Da Vinci looked at all women after being abandoned by one. I know for me, my father’s smile, and everything he says, is nothing if not a double-edged promise. Prostitution — and promiscuity, and weird sex, and the shows, with their combination of flirting and hurting people and shifting reality — are chances to turn things around, for me to give that promise back.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s 2005 personal essay collection.