--WHAT A WONDERFUL TIME TO BE ALIVE
Just In Case
It doesn’t always happen the way they say it does—some poor girl, sexually abused by her dad, becoming a prostitute. Sometimes you’re just industrious. Sometimes the men are actually kind, fatherly or brotherly, preppy and toned with muscles, big-tippers, regulars who want to talk more than touch. Sometimes it’s the best gig around.
At least that’s what you tell yourself on a suede-black night, staring out the motel window wondering where the moon is hiding. You tell yourself the man in the bathroom is the prom king you worshipped from afar throughout high school. You give him blonde locks of hair and denim blue eyes, teeth paper-white and straight as a picket fence. You name him Randy Jarvis.
And when this new Randy reappears you don’t notice how his breath smells like Lysol, how his belly drags over the stump of his penis, but you do check under the pillow where you always stash the shiv, just in case.
You say, “What’ll it be?” You ask how much time he has tonight. You close your eyes while the rest happens and picture that missing moon glowing radioactive, the biggest thing in the universe, staring back at you like a bomb that can be dropped at any time.
An Unbroken Circle
You know the girl on the bed outside the bathroom resembles your daughter, that’s why you picked her, but you don’t think about it because thinking about it makes you queasy, a pervert of the worst order, even though she’s a hooker and has probably already lain with half a dozen men before the two of you ever walked through the motel door.
You just tried to urinate, but there was nothing doing. This happens quite a bit lately and it’s another thing--on the long laundry list of others--that troubles you.
Your first prostitute was an Asian girl named Suki. That was a lifetime ago, yet you remember her well because the fake name reminded you of sushi, which you loathe, and because she did this mewling act prior to fake-climaxing. After her, there were thousands more which is why you work so hard, and after laboring so much to get ahead, you reward yourself with a little fun. It’s an unbroken circle.
Before coming out of the bathroom, you give yourself a mental pep talk repeating positive affirmations: I am a great lover. I do not ejaculate too soon. I control what happens.
When you open the door, the girl fluffs your pillow and props up on her elbows. She’s chewing gum. She blows a bubble the size of a light bulb until it pops, balloon-sticky on her nose. Chuckling, she again reminds you of your daughter.
You turn off the lights. Through the sheer, piss-colored drapes the sky is tar-black, no moon to light up anything. You feel your way back to the bed like a blind man and then there’s skin on skin and everything begins again.
You don’t like memories. Recalling them is a slippery slope, a cord or rope wrapped around your neck, drawing you back to the places and times that ignited a bitter switch inside you. But there are sirens going off in the city, not police cars screaming by, but fire trucks, and you must be close to the actual fire because you can see smoke twisting like black wraiths between two sky scrapers.
You remember how you’d become a fuse yourself, and once you were lit there was no other way around it, strength you didn’t know you had coiling with rampant rage, so instead of saying the words he wanted you to say while he did it, one afternoon you told your father you would kill him, and you were a lot of things, even back then, but a liar wasn’t one of them. That night as he lay slumped and passed out in front of a blaring TV, you got a gas can and spritzed gasoline and dropped your father’s lighter over a puddle. Standing on the curb minutes later, you watched scarlet flames eat everything. You stood until the house and he were ash, not caring if the neighbors saw you watching, not caring about the future or whether this was the last, selfish decision you’d ever get to make.
You pay the girl double because she complied with everything you asked. She says, “Hey, thanks, Bill,” even though your name isn’t Bill and she knows it’s not Bill.
This triggers something and so you ask the girl what her real name is. The way her eyes stutter before she says, “Ashley” leads you believe she’s lying and this enrages you, the lies, the fraud and phoniness. You’re the John, but you’re not feeling hypocritical one bit—it’s just fury swelling inside you.
You’ve never hit a hooker before, never hit a girl or woman in your life, but Ashley won’t give up her real name, and so you clock her on the chin. It happens blink-fast, reflexively.
The girl goes wild, becoming a stallion suddenly. She calls you a bastard. Her hand leaps like a cobra out of her purse and she swings a shiv an inch from your bloated belly.
You say you’re sorry, you don’t know what got into you, hitting a girl isn’t something you’d ever do, honest.
She keeps her eyes—cobalt-blue eyes—on you as she leaves. The door’s cracked open. An old woman in a housecoat is lumbering down the hall. She looks like your mother, same spider web hair and cigarette-wrinkled lips. She looks up with a toothless grin and says, “Wanna dance?”
You think about quitting for the thousandth time. It’s folly, but you do it anyway.
This always happens after a visit with a bad John. Once an obese medical supply salesman bit your shoulder so hard you had to have Holly, a now dead prostitute, stitch you up with something that might have been fishing line and the scar is usually the part of you, when naked, that customers find most alluring.
You’ve started using again—no needles this time—just huffing. It’s a way to make the world flat and somewhat redeemable. The pile of yellow powder looks like shredded drywall that someone’s mixed with piss. You know this is leading right back to mainlining, yet you’ve lost the will to resist an easy release and lately your clients have had cruel streaks that show up out of nowhere.
The burn is a torch scalding your nostril, reaching all the way down your throat to your chest, slamming your heart with a machete. The sensation is familiar yet new all the same, like a twisted trick sprung on you by a crafty client—vibrator and penis inserted in your ass together.
Before the high seals, you think about what college life would be like, wearing a backpack, tramping through a campus with many brick buildings, kids your own age, not damaged to any major extent, their staid head nods and “Hi’s” plenty enough to make you feel vibrant and alive.
Next you think about a child you might have had, maybe a girl named Maggie with your same dimpled chin, her seated at the kitchen table coloring outside the lines of Ariel’s mermaid tail. When she asks, “Momma, why are there bad people in the world?” you say, “It’s mostly bad men.” Maggie looks up, her eyes blue as yours, saying, “But Daddy’s not bad.” You look over at your husband doing dishes in the sink. He cocks his head like a golden retriever—Huh? Am I a bad guy? You laugh and laugh and then the world goes pale yellow, becoming an endless rug that rolls you up in a magic carpet and carries you off.
You stole a Gideon’s Bible from a Hilton hotel the first time you picked up a hooker, thinking if you read some of it right afterward, the shame and guilt would dissipate. Now the Bible stays in your car, in the cubby buried beneath stacks of porn magazine featuring lithe and ridiculously slender girls who look younger than their stated eighteen years of age.
You pull over two blocks from where the hooker procession begins, a mile from the airport, and root around in the car’s glove compartment. The Bible is stiff. Its cover feels waxy, like cadaver skin. You open it up and read a scene where Jesus is forgiving an adulteress who has fornicated with seven different men. “Go, and sin no more,” Jesus tells her.
The girl you pick up is just that--a girl; pigtails and bobby socks, tartan skirt and an empty backpack, her teeth glittering with braces. Her fresh-faced nature is stunning yet odd because most of the prostitutes have a used, withered look about them, like ill-fed livestock. You feel shitty for making this last comparison, even though it’s just something in your head, but it’s those thoughts jangling inside your skull that are the most destructive.
You ask if the girl, Casey, has a place to go and she does. It’s a remodeled Motel 6 south of the airport.
Entering, you feel something’s off, but you’ve been thinking about having her since she first smiled, all that metal encasing her teeth winking back at you.
You pay her and go to the bathroom as you always do. Never once has a hooker walked out on you, because that’s how they get a bad reputation and put out of business.
Staring in the mirror you see the results all of the drinking and excess eating you’ve done but you rationalize it right away with the excuse that it’s impossible to get fit with as much travel as you have to do.
You try to pee but can’t.
You disrobe and wrap a stiff towel around your waist but have to hold the two ends together because it’s not long enough to tie over your gut.
When you open the door there’s a man with a ski mask holding a pistol inches from your face. You feel urine run down your thigh. The man demands your wallet. You tell him, “Okay, hey sure, just relax.” The towel falls off you as you search your pants. You finally find your wallet, take out all the cash and hand it to him but he says, “No, I want the wallet and your cell phone.” When you say, “Oh come on,” he stabs the pistol against your forehead and there’s no way to think he won’t shoot unless you comply.
After he’s gone, you sit on the edge of the bed trembling, bawling. It’s the first time you’ve cried since you were a kid. You hate yourself for crying and for not following your instincts when you walked into the room. You hate yourself for so many things.
You practice different scenarios out loud, picturing your wife’s reaction, chin drooped against her clavicle bone the way she always does when she’s sure you’re lying.
The mattress starts to tremble. You think it’s an earthquake but the walls aren’t buckling.
You whimper. It makes you remember Suki, your first prostitute, and her mewling noises.
You rewind your life back to age nineteen or so. The girl on the riverbank sunbathing nude curls her finger, you thinking it a mirage. You consider what this means, only now, in your middle-aged head, you look away. She’s young enough to be your sister. She’s poison, even if she’s not.
This client is into weird shit. He likes to be handcuffed and choked. He wants you to slap him and leave fingernail scratches down his back.
It’s a nice switch, being the dominate one for a change, and you have at it with abandon.
When the session is over he says, “Wow, you did great,” as if you’re a personal trainer from the gym. He promises to be back for more. “We’ll ratchet it up a little next time,” he says.
The rest of the evening’s Johns are not as inventive, but it’s a calm night without incident unless you count the one college kid, drunk off his ass, who threw up right after his orgasm.
The dingy apartment building where you live has different colored doors. Yours is lime green, the only thing about the place that appeals to you.
When you were a very young child you liked to color and sometimes you’d even create your own images on clean white sheets of paper.
A woman who was not your mother came home one night when your mom was staying at Aunt Jean’s. The woman had long wine-colored hair and big brassy earrings. She smelled like Lemon Pledge and told you your pictures were pretty. You knew she was lying but you said, “Thanks” just the same. In the middle of the night you had to pee so you got up and saw the woman and your father naked on top of each other on the living room rug. You thought your dad was trying to kill her because the woman was making choking sounds, like being strangled.
In the morning the woman was gone and at breakfast when you told your dad what you saw he stood up without a word, took off his black leather belt and used on your behind until you begged him to stop. “That’s what you get for meddling,” he said.
You’re exhausted, but don’t feel sleepy. You go to retrieve your drugs from where you’ve hidden them but remember you finished off the remainder of the stash last night.
Your skin itches. It’s not DT’s, just a sense of dread that this is going to be your life forever, even though you’ve only ever seen one or two old women prostitutes.
Loneliness washes over you in tsunami fashion. Your friends, if they’re even that, are all hookers or drug dealers. So you take out your cellphone and dial a random number using the prefix of the city where you grew up. You keep doing that until someone answers and each time they do you stay on the line without speaking until they hang up. You do this for hours.
After you’ve finally slept and eaten and it’s time to start work again, you dress but instead of going to your street corner you travel in the opposite direction where there’s a small strip mall. Hanging lopsided in the window of a boutique that sells children’s clothes is a Help Wanted sign. You have no resume or references, but you promise yourself to come back tomorrow during the day when they’re open.
You look up at the night sky, star-filled for once, and pledge to a God you can’t see that this will be your last night of hooking. As if on cue, something bright flares across the sky like a powerful firework that suddenly peters out almost as soon as its flight begins.
But that’s enough. You still believe in signs and omens. You’re still optimistic after all.
You blow the sky a kiss and leave, skipping, singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” so loud that you can feel your toes stinging.