Joyland

Toronto |

The Telling

by Marianne Apostolides

George bought me a drink that afternoon — I think I told you that. I definitely told other people; I mentioned that detail whenever I recounted the story, which wasn’t infrequently. This was my “party story” for a while: me in the Mustang Ranch, the most illustrious brothel in Nevada. Innocence meets sexual sophistication; intellect meets experience; earnestness, absurdity. I played all these angles in my retellings. But afterwards — after I’d gotten my laughs — I always felt uneasy. Even as the smile lingered on my face, I knew I was just a mouthpiece for some fake, clever fiction. I couldn’t speak the story’s truth because, in honesty, I hadn’t discovered it yet. I wouldn’t, until I told you. That was five years ago. You probably don’t remember, but I mentioned that detail: George bought me a drink. He launched himself onto the stool, wiped the sweat off his forehead and jowls. He introduced me to the Mustang’s bartender, Tammy. She’d worked as a prostitute for three years, George said, switching jobs the previous month, when she was fitted with a mouthful of braces. Tammy smiled silver and poured two shots — sweet brown liquid that cracked the ice cubes. It’d take her years to pay the orthodontist bills, she said, considering the tips she got here. George flung her a twenty. “Thanks, Georgie.” She winked and smiled, slipping the bill in the back pocket of her jeans. The fabric parted for her fingers. George turned toward me, proposing a toast to college girls. I clinked his glass and pretended to drink, letting the liquid flow close to my lips. I didn’t really consume alcohol at that point in my life. I didn’t consume food, either — not in public, anyway. “Lord love college girls,” George said, exhaling the fumes of Scotch. “Amen!” I wore stretch pants that day and a boxy-cut blazer, a fashion choice based solely on the fact that those particular garments fit me on that particular day. I was a virgin: a bulimic virgin Princeton undergraduate writing about commercial sex from a purely legal perspective. “College girls and Scotch: oh Lord, oh yes! A beautiful combination, don’t you think? What do you think, Tammy?” “I think all girls are beautiful, George.” “Amen!” Beyond the bar was a vast lobby ringed with couches on which various women lounged about. Some wore lingerie; others sat in jeans and button-down blouses. Many knitted or busied themselves with nail files and polish. She was reading trash — romantic, tragic, a story swollen with bad writing — but I imagined it to be other. She was beautiful. This I told you. I remember, specifically, telling you this. I described, too, that the lobby was fed by a single narrow hallway. This was where the men entered from the dusty parking lot, as one was entering now. A buzzer blared to announce his arrival. The women rose from the couches and formed a line across the carpet. From the bar, I could see only their backs. Hers was strong — two columns of muscle rounding toward her spine. She placed her weight on one leg, thumbs hooked into the waistband of her pants. They were blue pants, Capri style. Her tank top was tight, striped with red and cream, cropped at the last rib. While she awaited the man’s decision, she shook her hair out of its twist. The tips brushing against her skin, low down, where the back arches all of its own. The man took in the abundance of women aligned before him — all those limbs and torsos and breasts and lips. The Mustang’s madam, older and elegant, spoke to the man with comforting guidance. He nodded, looked to her face then back to the lineup, his left knee bobbing. The madam lay one hand on his shoulder and swept the other through the air, displaying the options. The women didn’t twitter or vamp. They stood. She stood. She gathered her hair — straight and long and chestnut brown — over one shoulder. She waited. “I bet he comes to the bar first,” George said. “Lots of times they come to the bar first. They have a drink, relax, get to talking with a lady.” “They leave shitty tips,” Tammy said. George retrieved his billfold. He dangled a twenty between two fingers, making Tammy come and get it, which she did. The man at the door pointed to a woman in a pink teddy covered by a faux-silk robe, the belt undone. “I was wrong,” George said, observing. “You don’t know how to read ’em.” “That’s not my job.” The other girls resumed their positions on the couches. The woman with the tank top touched her forefinger to her tongue and turned the page of her book. I thought she might have looked briefly toward the bar, toward me, but I’m not sure: I didn’t look back. The ice was melting in my drink. George squeezed my hand, his fingers fleshy, and told me to wait right there. He huffed off the stool, pumping his arms to get himself moving. George Flint — the man with the white suit and white Cadillac and White Bell Chapel, which offered drive-thru weddings seven days a week — George was my ticket in. He was the spokesman for the Nevada Brothels’ Association, a beloved figure in the state’s thirty-three legal cathouses. I’d contacted him from Princeton, hoping he could clarify his stance regarding the benefits and shortfalls of the legalized brothel system. George had responded by inviting me out West. He could show me around, he’d said; he could show me a good time. “Wait right there, baby.” I didn’t expect to feel so nervous without the bulk of him beside me. I stirred my drink, thankful for the activity. The buzzer blared. The women lined up. I tapped the plastic stir stick against the rim of the glass — tap-tap — and there was nothing more to do. I straightened my spine. The buzzer blared. The women lined up: she was gone. No sheet of chestnut hair, no bare back low down. I gripped my glass. I was at a bar in a brothel, by myself, with no one to talk to, a drink sweating in my hand. I gulped the Scotch. The buzzer blared. Across from me, on the other end of the bar, a prostitute chatted with a youngish man, beefy-large, his linebacker muscles turning to fat. The prostitute was Raedene — Raedene from rural Oregon — somebody’s version of pretty. George had introduced us earlier in the afternoon. Raedene had told me the same story I’d heard all week, from dozens of prostitutes in cathouses across the state: prostitution was a good job, she’d said. She made good money, met interesting men, controlled her own working life. And sex had very little to do with it. “I’m an actress and a therapist,” she’d said as I scribbled some notes. “And a mind-reader and an independent contractor.” She’d blinked then, smiling with relief that she’d remembered the whole list. “And besides,” she’d giggled, “it sure beats cleaning toilets in some casino downtown!” Raedene’s breath had smelled heavily of peppermint mouthwash. Raedene and the man weren’t at the bar anymore. She must be acting on her bed, I thought. Or independently negotiating a new contract, or administering therapy without a license. Or… what was the fourth? I couldn’t remember the fourth.… Actress… therapist… I licked my lips, which tingled with an unfamiliar wide-alive numbness. The feeling didn’t get washed away by my tongue. I wasn’t sure whether I liked it there. “She’s waiting for you, honey.” George’s hand was on my back. He leaned in close, his mouth on my ear. “Room 14, baby. She’s waiting for you.” “Room —” “Go on. She’s waiting.” I walked down the motel-like hallway, uncertain where I was headed. Room 14. Raedene fluttered out of Room 8, cash in hand. She winked at me, her sky-blue eyeshadow expertly applied, her lipstick now faded. Room 8, 10, 12… The door was open just slightly — just enough — and her bed was empty. “Hello?” I ventured. “Sit down.” She was curled on the room’s only chair. I shuffled, awkward, looking for a place to obey. “Sit.” She pointed at the bed. “Sorry,” I said. I sweat through my blazer — sorry, sorry — “Don’t apologize,” she answered. It was a command, not a kindness. She ran her thumb under the strap of her tank top, as if it needed straightening. “George said you’ve got questions.” “I —” “You’ve got half an hour. Paid for.” She glanced at one of four clocks that hung on the wall. “Paid?” “George.” “Oh, but I…!” George often bought time with the girls — not for talking, of course. “I didn’t ask him to buy me —” “He didn’t buy you anything,” she said. “He bought —” “Do you have questions for me? Or not.” “I do,” I answered. “I do….” I sat on the bed, as told. I retrieved my Princeton folder, which contained a list of fourteen questions, all vetted by my thesis advisor weeks in advance. “I’d like to begin with the basics,” I said, reading primly off the page. “What brought you here?” “What brought you here.” “Um… I’m writing my thesis on the legalization of prostitution.” “And I’m getting out of debt. Next question.” “Next question…” I fumbled with my papers, dense with all those bullet-pointed, pre-approved words: • Start with the basics: What brought you to the brothels? Do you have any complaints about working here? Describe a typical day. • Why, specifically, did you “choose” to become a prostitute? What other “choices” did you have? • What is/are the fundamental difference(s) between legal brothel prostitution and streetwalking? • What (really) are you selling? Sexual services? Body? Self? Can there (really) be boundaries between them? “You’re wasting time.” “I know, I…” I set the papers on the mattress. “I’ve interviewed a lot of women who say it’s not about sex,” I said. I flushed at speaking the word, to her, in her bed. “Really,” she responded. “That’s what they say….” “They tell me —” But she didn’t let me finish. She thrust her feet on the floor and slid to the edge of her chair. She leaned toward me, pelvis pressed down. “This…” she said, then paused. “Yes?” I stared at her eyes — only her eyes as she swiveled her shoulders. “This…” she repeated, “is most definitely about sex.” My breath released — a small moan — and her contempt spread over me, thick. “Yeah, it’s about sex. But anyway,” she sighed, “I touch them as little as possible.” She sat back, relaxed again, legs curled up. She’d gotten good at her job, she said as she toyed with the hem of her blue Capri pants. She could read the signals — a certain scent in the sweat or dryness to the mouth. A certain rhythm to their breathing. She could get the men primed just by talking, taking them right to the edge so she barely had to touch them at all. “But then you have to touch them,” I said, my forehead now pulsing from the Scotch. She guffawed. “Yeah. Then I have to touch them.” She shook out her hair. She stretched her shoulders back, one hand on the roped muscle of her neck, rubbing. “Do you have any other questions.” She looked at me now. Her body became still — eyes, mouth, gaze — tautly still, except her fingers, which circled. “Is there anything else you want to know.” “I want to know,” I said. I swallowed viscous saliva, my breath uneven. “I want to know what happens after… if… when you touch them.” She cackled, hard. “I mean…!” And what else could she do, really? What was the appropriate response to such an asinine question from a twenty-one-year-old bulimic virgin co-ed from an East Coast Ivy League school whose best strategy for learning about sex was to write her thesis about prostitution? “What happens to you,” I whispered. “What happens to you when you touch them.” At that, the woman (so beautiful) laughed again. But the sound was different now. This was the laughter of surprise — genuine, lovely, unscripted surprise. “To me?” “To you.” “Me?” She closed her mouth, jaw tensed, her gentleness fleeing. “To me?” She purred, she growled. “Me… I lose a little of myself. Every time.” I looked at her — her tank top and skin, her fingers that circled. I looked and removed my jacket. One revelation demanded another. My shoulders were slim, curved in their internal holding. I was strong. With my body as the place of embattlement, I needed to be strong: this was where my power lay, inside its desire; this was where I needed to give my brutality. “What do you mean?” I said. “Explain it to me. I’d like to listen.” “You’d like to listen to me.” “I’d like to hear your thoughts.” “You’d like to hear my thoughts.” “Please,” I said, a directive not a plea — not completely. “You’ve got eighteen minutes left,” she asserted. “Then give me eighteen minutes.” “Fuck,” she breathed, looking at a clock. “It’s paid for,” I added. “It always is.” For the next eighteen minutes she wrestled with her thoughts, and we with each other. I pushed and she engaged, but then withdrew, and I pursued. And then she engaged again. She wanted to explain, I think. She wanted to understand her own metaphor, her own story; I most definitely wanted to elicit it. “I still don’t understand how you lose yourself. You say you lose yourself, but you haven’t told me how.” “I feel like… after two years of working here, it’s like…” She made a fist and held it up; it shook from the force of her clenching. “It’s like I get so small every time I do a job. It’s like I go into this little room right here.” She put her fist to her belly, beneath her sternum, pushing in. “And I can’t come back out anymore. I’m getting stuck in there. I feel…” She stopped. “Tell me what you feel,” I said. “What do you feel, trapped in that space. Can you tell me?” “Every time a man comes in my mouth or my cunt, it’s like…” “Keep going: please. Tell me what it’s like. Tell —” And she struck her fist into the air, springing toward me. “‘Tell me,’” she mimicked, her voice mincing. “‘Tell me! Tell me!’” I leaned back, my body on the bed. “‘Tell me what’s it’s like to be a whore: I really want to know.’” “I —” She was bent over me now, pinning me down without contact. “I’ll tell you something, little girl…” I watched her lips as she spoke. I couldn’t look at her eyes. Only her lips and chin and chest, which would’ve touched mine if we hadn’t been breathing together, fast and shallow. “I’ll tell you whatever you want to hear.”
I saw her line up later that day. She tossed her hair over her shoulder, adjusting the strap of her tank top. I knew what she was doing, and why, and whom for. I knew, too, that I could watch from the bar where I sipped my Scotch while she, with long limbs, led a man down the hall, toward her room, where he would sit upon her bed and she would lose a little of herself, again, as she curled in that space — that intimate, innermost place — where no one had entered but me. And that’s the part of the story I discovered five years ago. Your body led me there as you listened, in your bed. I felt your response as I spoke; I tasted, fully, the story’s essence. But I never had a chance to share this discovery with you. And that’s why I’m writing this story now. To let you know. Because, by the time I’d arrived at the story’s truth, you were already deep in my mouth. Do you remember now?