“Remember, his name is Barry,” said the woman in the Pink Floyd shirt and baggy, stone-washed jeans. Her long blond hair was frizzy and badly permed. Gabriela was surprised she didn’t wear any make-up and was so unattractive. She had imagined her differently. She felt comfortable with her.
“Are you alright? Can I get you something? It’s normal to feel this way. Don’t worry. It becomes less unpleasant with time. Would it help if I brought you a bottle of wine? It used to relax me, made me feel less nervous.”
“Yes, thank you. It would really help. When will Barry get here? How much time do I have?”
“He will be here at one thirty. Let me run to the liquor store across the street. Wait for me here. Don’t answer the door to anyone. Before knocking, I’ll call you to let you know it’s me. Do you prefer a particular kind of wine?”
“If you find a Malbec, that would be wonderful. If not, any dry red wine is good.”
Gabriela stayed in the room as she was asked, walked over to the window and opened the heavy red curtains. It was raining very hard and there wasn’t a single car in that barren land. She closed the curtains in a hurry when she thought she saw a man walking in the parking lot. The air in that room was heavy and suffocating. The smell of stale sweat and cigarette smoke asphyxiated her. She turned on the fan and walked over to the bathroom.
She looked at herself in the mirror. She didn’t recognize the image this mirror reflected back to her. She was thankful she hadn’t eaten anything that morning. She would have certainly thrown up. She put on more eyeliner, more mascara, more bronzing powder. She looked at herself in the mirror again and immediately vomited the coffee she had drunk before taking the train. She returned to the bedroom.
The lights were fluorescent blue; a gray button on the right side of the bed controlled the lighting of the mirror that served as a headboard, the light bulbs on the ceiling, the television set, and the lamps by the entrance. Under that light, she looked old and the rings under her eyes seemed darker. Her skin acquired a greenish tone and she felt she looked garish. She flung herself on bed and tried to read. Octavio Paz, Labyrinth of Solitude. She couldn’t understand a single sentence and so she gave up. She left the book open, face down, on the dresser, next to the pile of folded clean sheets. She turned off all the lights and took off the jeans and black silk blouse she was wearing. She took a short black dress out of her overnight bag, her black leather heels, and a black lace negligee. It was pointless to wear the dress. She decided on the negligee and high heels. She felt embarrassed to have Aliza see her that way. She found it absurd to feel embarrassed by it.
She lay on the bed again and felt disgusted by the thought of her perfumed skin touching the comforter that surely hadn’t been washed in months. She took it off and lay on the rough white sheets. She turned on the TV and after going through several channels, found a kung-fu movie. On one of the night tables, the one that didn’t have the phone, there was a box of baby wipes, five condoms, and an old, sticky bottle of baby oil. It was five ‘til one. It seemed to her that Aliza was taking too long. Her cell phone rang and Aliza asked her to open the door. Her back was drenched in sweat but at the same time, she felt terribly cold.
She opened the door and Aliza walked in with a bottle in her hands and a plastic corkscrew, the kind one takes to a picnic, and sat on the bed.
“I couldn’t find Malbec. I got you a Pinot Noir that is really good.” She said, struggling to open the bottle with that make-shift opener. Gabriela could never open a bottle with that kind of corkscrew. She remembered once, in Florence she and her mother had struggled for a while trying to open a bottle of Barolo with one of those bottle openers in the Piazza della Signoria. They eventually gave up and went back to the restaurant where they had eaten dinner to ask the waitress to open it for them with a proper one.
“I really don’t care what kind of wine it is. I need to drink something. Anything. I also need to ask you a question. What do the other ones do, usually, the ones who have been here a while? I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it.”
“Nothing out of the ordinary. You know what to do. Relax. Imagine you are with your boyfriend.”
“My boyfriend,” said Gabriela, thinking of the Cuban she had lived with for the past five years and whom she had just left. And of the many others from the past six months. “It cannot possibly be worse than with Gianfranco,” she thought, looking sternly at the bottle.
Aliza poured her some wine in a plastic cup she brought from the bathroom.
“You won’t have a drink with me?” Gabriela asked when she realized Aliza was pouring only one cup.
“No. I can’t drink. I quit two years ago. It’s really a pity. I used to love this wine. It was my favorite.”
Gabriela drank the whole cup at once and poured herself another one. “This is water, I need something stronger,” she thought, realizing that despite having an empty stomach, the alcohol in the wine had no effect on her at all.
“You will be fine. You’ll do very well. Barry is very nice and I told him everything. He is so happy to be your first client. So, just relax darling.”
Gabriela felt anything but relaxed.
“I’m leaving now; I will call you when he is in the parking lot. You tell me if you are ready. He will most likely take a shower as soon as he walks in, and then, well, as I told you, you have to pretend he is your boyfriend. He likes you to be tender and sweet to him, to treat him as if you loved him.”
“And what does this Barry look like? He is not obese, is he?”
“No, of course not. He is in great shape. And as I told you in the car, I trust him. All my clients are very trustworthy. I only have two girls who see new clients. The rest see only regulars.”
Gabriela didn’t trust people who felt the need to add the word ‘very’ before any adjective. It was what she did when trying to convince somebody of pretty much anything, a skill she had mastered. Aliza left and Gabriela put on more perfume, Chanel, Coco Mademoiselle, and rinsed her mouth. Her phone rang right away. Barry was outside; he had arrived early and, if Gabriela didn’t mind, Aliza would tell him he could come in. Gabriela said she was ready. Ten minutes didn’t make a difference to her.
There was a knock on the door and Gabriela put her heels on and opened the door. She smiled, hugged Barry and kissed him on both cheeks.
“My name is Gabrielle,” she said, as she lightly combed his silver straight hair with one of her perfectly manicured hands. Aliza had lied to her. Barry, if that was his real name, was at least sixty years old and a had beer belly that, despite not being too big, was not easily disguised in the camel colored polo shirt he was wearing tucked inside a pair of jeans that he had clearly chosen to wear in an attempt to look younger.
“Would you like a glass of wine, Barry? I am having some.”
“Yes, thank you. This way we will both relax. Let me use the restroom first.”
Gabriela poured him some wine in one of the plastic cups. She hated drinking alcohol, and even more so, wine, out of a plastic cup. But that day, it was that or nothing.
Barry sat on the bed next to her and told her not to worry, that he knew she was nervous and he began to massage her back to loosen her up a bit. He said he wanted both of them to have a good time, and, that if she didn’t like something he did, to please let him know. After a couple of minutes, Barry lay on the bed and turned on the tv.
“Do you like this kind of movies?” He asked while kissing her neck.
“Yes, of course.”
“No, tell me if you really enjoy them, if they turn you on.”
“Not really. They bore me. I don’t care about them one way or the other. But if you like them, let’s leave it on. They don’t bother me at all.”
Barry turned the TV off and told Gabriela that he wanted to make her feel good first, that he wanted her to finish first. He kissed her on the mouth for what seemed like an endless moment. She felt Barry’s thick saliva while observing the deep furrows that time had dug on his face. Barry’s eyes were closed and he wouldn’t stop caressing her hair with one hand, and pulling her close to him with the other one. She decided to do the same. But it was useless. Even with her eyes closed, she could see Barry’s round red face as if they were wide open. She could see his blue eyes that must have been very beautiful once, a long time ago.
Barry began licking her neck and her breasts. Then moved down to her flat and tan belly, then to her bellybutton, pierced by a silver ring, and finally, proceeded to give her oral sex. Gabriela tried to get away from him and attempted to return the supposed favor.
“No, please let me do it! I want you to come in my mouth. Do you like it? Am I doing it well? Let me know if you want me to do something in particular.”
“No, Barry,” said Gabriela, pretending to be breathless. You are doing everything perfectly. I am loving it.”
She looked at the white ceiling and wondered how much time had gone by since Barry’s arrival. She had forgotten to check the clock. Who would she have to see next? Who else would she have to let lick her and salivate all over her body? Time seemed to have stopped; it just didn’t seem to pass. It had frozen. She pretended to have an orgasm and pulled Barry up, towards her, so that he would penetrate her. That was slightly less unbearable. Until Barry started holding her and kissing her again, as if he loved her. The sex was the least of it, the false affection, which for Barry seemed to be real, the endless kisses, which were also very bad, annoyed and disgusted her.
“Hold me. Please hold me tight,” said Barry.
Gabriela held him for a moment and then said she wanted to get on top. This way, he wouldn’t be able to hold her and suffocate her. Barry thought Gabriela was very turned on and wanted to try another position to feel even more pleasure. Gabriela faked another orgasm hoping that Barry would get excited and finally finish. But this didn’t happen. After Gabriela’s false orgasm, he turned her on her back and climbed on top of her again. Gabriela was sure at least two hours must have passed by since Barry had gotten there. But she looked at the clock and it was only 2 pm. At most, forty minutes had gone by. She searched the room with her eyes, without moving her head, trying to find her negligee and black thong. They were on the carpet, by the foot of the bed.
A few minutes later, Barry finally came and lay down beside Gabriela.
“It wasn’t bad, huh? You see, there was no reason for you to be so nervous!”
“No, no, with you, it was very good. But of course, who knows what sort of guy I may have next. It could be somebody very strange or disgusting. You are very attractive. Aliza told me you looked young and were in good shape, and it is true. She also said you were very sweet and would be ideal as a first client. Thank God. I have been very lucky!” She said as she put her head on his chest, relieved to see it was already 2:15.
“Thank you, you are very kind. But I am truly in bad shape. I have gained twenty pounds this last year. My wife has cancer and it has been very hard on both of us. I come here to distract myself, to give and receive affection, to have a good time, and to make the girl have an even better time. Now, give me another kiss, Gabrielle. That’s your artistic name, right?
“Yes. I am truly sorry about your wife, Barry; it must be terribly difficult.” She said while she thought of her dog Coco, a pit bull who had died of cancer despite the radiation, the chemotherapy, the cars rented daily for an entire month, and the twenty thousand dollars that Gabriela didn’t have but had nevertheless spent trying to save him.
“Aliza told me that I would be your first client , and it is truly a great honor for me. You are unbelievably beautiful and so elegant. Now, tell me, what do you do, what do you really do, besides this, or, what did you do before?”
“Well,” Gabriela said, looking towards the window, which was entirely draped by the curtains, “this will sound very strange to you, but I am a lawyer, like you. I went to Harvard and worked in a big Wall Street law firm. But law doesn’t interest me and that sort of lifestyle bores me to death, so I decided to try this. It takes less time and is less annoying. Besides, it is exactly the same thing. Doing this, being a lawyer, a taxi driver, at the end of the day, is the same thing, nothing is too important. It all seems quite inconsequential and absurd to me. Although, to be honest, I think being a slave in a law firm is more absurd than being a whore. Don’t you think?” She said as she absent-mindedly played with her black hair.
“Yes, I suppose you may be right.” He pulled her towards him again and held her tight. He didn’t believe her.
“I would spend the entire afternoon and evening with you, if I had enough money. But here, in Long Island, one doesn’t make as much money as in the city, and I work on my own, not in a law firm. I wish I didn’t have to go. I feel we have a very strong connection. I would love to see you again. I don’t know if you’ll come back to work with Aliza, but please take my card, I would love to see you, even if you never come back here. But please don’t say anything to her. If she finds out, she’ll ban me from here. She’s very strict with these things. I understand her, it’s her business and she has to protect it.
“Of course, don’t worry about it.” She said, smiling at him as she got up from the bed and put on her negligee again. She couldn’t wait to get rid of Barry. Hopefully the next one would be less cloying.
The rest of the day, and of Gabriela’s dates, went by uneventfully: Gabriela locked in with a random man in the dark room of that cheap motel in a gray and rainy town, forsaken by the rest of the world. Gabriela waiting for her next client. Gabriela looking at herself in the mirror and feeling it wasn’t really herself who was there, but that she was looking at all the events from the outside, as a spectator, as if she were watching movie. Gabriela feeling, more than anything else, a complete indifference towards the situation, as it tended to happen to her with almost everything. Gabriela going outside to buy a diet coke and smoke a Camel while she waited for the young accountant that, according to Aliza, was handsome, but that, even if he was far from it, at least came quickly. After that accountant, there was the doctor, a pseudo intellectual who wouldn’t stop talking and who claimed to understand Gabriela, her indifference, her eternal search for something more. The doctor who asked her, “what does it feel to be so beautiful, so perfect, so refined?” The doctor who made her stand in front of him so he could stare at her beautiful tan body, thin but curvy, and told her she was perfection.
“Wow,” he said over and over, the doctor whose name Gabriela forgot. He seemed incredulous of the fact that a woman like that was his whore in that small-town motel.
“You are amazing. You are the best. I want to see you again and I want to see only you, nobody else. I don’t know if you’re going to keep doing this, but I want us to keep seeing each other, and I hope, more than anything, that you find what you are looking for.”
They all wanted to see her again. Despite how nervous Gabriela was, she had made each of them feel special, as if they were a pleasure to have as clients, different from ‘the rest of them’. Unique and fascinating, this is how Gabriela had made them feel. After the doctor, she called Aliza and told her she needed to leave because she had to meet some friends for dinner in the city. Aliza had scheduled a fourth appointment for her, but Gabriela wasn’t in the mood to tolerate more nonsense from another guy. She was tired and wanted to get to her dinner in Manhattan on time.
Gabriela got into Aliza’s car; it was still pouring and gray.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” asked Aliza.
“Not at all. I also smoke. Well, every now and then. I am not really a smoker, but I smoke some days.”
Aliza offered her a menthol cigarette and Gabriela accepted it. It was strange for her to smoke because cigarette smoke repulsed her and even made her nauseous, but she smoked often back then, smoked just because. That was the last cigarette Aliza had but she insisted that Gabriela have it.
“How do you feel?” asked Aliza as Gabriela blew the smoke out the slightly opened car window. The inside of the door was already soaked from how hard it was raining.
“I feel ok. I mean, it was strange; it was a very unusual experience, not necessarily terrible or entirely unpleasant. Just very uncomfortable, especially at first, when the clients get there and I don’t know what to do with them or how to act. It was also quite disconcerting when they kissed me and I was repulsed. The sex itself didn’t bother me. It was the least of it for me. I could even say I enjoyed it.”
“I know what you mean. It was similar for me. I still see clients sometimes, when I don’t have enough girls, and I hate it when they kiss me too.”
“But do we have to? It’s so gross and the hugging too. The pretense of affection. They’re paying for a service, not for real love.”
“Well, they are buying the “girlfriend experience” and most guys like that more than just seeing a regular escort. Do you think you’ll come back?”
“I don’t know. I am not sure right now. I think so, but since I change my mind on a daily basis, and sometimes even on an hourly basis, I can’t tell right now whether tomorrow I will get up and decide not to come back.”
“Ok. Well, tell me for now whether you can come back on Monday and that way I put you on the schedule.”
“Yes, I am free on Monday.”
“Good! I told my friend about you and he wants to come see you.”
“I hope he’s nice and not repulsive.”
“And Monday we can go see the pit bull we talked about, and see if you want to take him. He’s adorable.”
“Yes, definitely! I’d love to have another dog but it scares me too. I was so depressed when Coco died. And they’re so much work and commitment. But maybe if I see him I’ll fall in love with him and will have to take him.”
They arrived at the train station and Gabriela said goodbye to Aliza in the parking lot and said it had been wonderful to meet her, that she was very nice and she had felt good with her. It was true. Gabriela meant it. She always meant the things she said even if people tended not to believe her sometimes. The train was arriving right then; she ran to it to avoid getting soaked by the rain, found a seat and opened her book, but she fell asleep right away. She could never sleep on trains or planes, but she was exhausted. She had had sex with three men in the last five hours and had barely slept the night before, nervous about what awaited her. She dreamt of a turquoise sea and a Buddhist monk walking on it, far from the coast, as if the sea were a solid surface. The monk was dressed in a bright orange tunic, like the Dalai Lama and said something like we are all one and merely a particle of the universe. She was woken up by her phone ringing. It was the Arab. She ignored it and fell asleep for about five more minutes and then, the loudspeakers announced their arrival to Penn Station.
She awoke and was very hungry. She realized she couldn’t wait to eat until she met her friends for dinner later on. She ate a slice of pizza while walking in the crowded station. She thought of the stash of hundred dollar bills she had in her wallet and felt satisfied, more than anything because nobody could possibly imagine what she had just done to earn them. She had not even counted this money. She observed the men she saw as she walked, especially the ugly and vaguely inadequate ones; office workers, those men that you can tell even from the distance are too lonely, and she imagined them calling Aliza to make an appointment to spend their lunch hour in that cheap Babylon motel, being overly careful so that nobody saw them enter or leave the room because they are respectable members of society. They are lawyers, doctors, accountants and nobody can possibly find out they’d go see a prostitute.
Gabriela got on the 2 train and got to her Harlem apartment fifteen minutes later. She sat on her red couch and closed her eyes for a moment. She thought about her day, about the men she had seen and who had been inside her. She felt absolutely nothing. She felt the same way, maybe even better, than when she had spent the day at the office putting up with pretentious lawyers who were convinced, they didn’t just act it, but some actually believed it, the poor things, that their existence and work were transcendental. She felt serene. She was capable of doing everything; she would never have a hard time surviving and being independent. And this was of utmost importance to her.
She also loved the possibility of being able to change worlds from one instant to the next. Of one day being a lawyer, the following day a waitress, and the next one a whore. She thought she had proven to herself what she only intuited before, that deep down, it was all the same, that being a whore was the same for her as being a lawyer, a flight attendant, a waitress, a phone operator, a writing teacher, a receptionist, a secretary. She was a naïve girl, despite her experiences, and too young.
She washed her face and re-did her make-up. She had showered in Long Island after her last client, the doctor. She called a car service and asked the driver to take her to the East Village, where she was meeting six friends at an Indian restaurant on East 6th street. She was the first one to get there. A few minutes later, her good friend and former landlord, Shanti, a great painter who lived from her art, arrived apologizing for being on “Mexican time”. Gabriela had a great time. She laughed, met new people, drank and generally, felt very good. She didn’t feel different; she didn’t have any feelings that were out of the ordinary. Nothing in her had changed. At least she really believed so that day.
Monday came and she decided not to go back to Aliza. Not because she felt she didn’t want to or had regretted going. Nothing like that. She didn’t return because her friend Helmut wanted to see her and Gabriela knew he needed to see her. She had a hard time saying no to her good friends. Helmut was married to a wonderful and beautiful woman and had a year and a half old girl. They had very recently become lovers. They had been friends for over four years, the four of them, Helmut and his wife, the Cuban and Gabriela. Helmut never tried anything with Gabriela while she was living with the Cuban.
“I have a lot of respect for other people’s relationships,” he explained.
“But not for your own? Marlene is wonderful.”
Helmut laughed, uncomfortable with the last remark.
“Yes, she’s wonderful, but I never liked her like that. We never had that, a great sex life. But we make a good team and have created a beautiful family and I think I’m a pretty good husband and father.”
“Yes, I agree. I think you are also.”
“Thank you. I also never thought you liked me.”
“That’s funny. I did. I always found you attractive. I remember when we were working on the divorce case, at the firm, and you closed the door of your office because it was so loud in the hallway, I remember your eyes, your smiling, flirty eyes, and I wanted you very much at that moment.”
“But I always felt that Christian was so much better looking than I and that I stood no chance.”
“You really thought so? That’s funny. I thought you were very good looking. Very Middle-Eastern looking.”
“That’s what Marlene told me when she met me. She thought I was Turkish.”
“Well, she’s German. But you do look Middle Eastern. So do I, I guess. I get that a lot.”
As soon as Christian and Gabriela had broken up, Helmut had asked her to go to dinner. That was not unusual. They used to go out a lot together, even alone, while they worked at the law firm, but never as more than friends. What Gabriela found strange was that he wanted to meet and go out uptown, near Columbia, and had asked to see her new apartment and to celebrate her move by drinking Don Julio Reposado, Gabriela’s favorite tequila. She knew what he wanted when he said that but curiosity took the best of her. She wanted to see what he would do to seduce her. She found it entertaining, to see him in this new light. She wanted to know how he would be as a lover. So, she slept with him even though she didn’t particularly care to be his lover or not be his lover. It made him feel good. It was a gift to him. And she didn’t mind.
He was tender and didn’t last long. That’s how Helmut was as a lover.
“I’m sorry. I haven’t had sex in so long.”
“But why? Marlene is gorgeous.”
“Yes, but she doesn’t really like sex.”
“Well, she’s German,” Gabriela explained. She secretly believed all Germans, and, in general, Anglo Saxons, including white Americans, were cold and bad in bed.
They fell asleep and Helmut stayed over and held Gabriela the entire night. She felt strange. She thought it was better that she be Helmut’s lover than some other woman who may put in danger his marriage, his family because truly, Helmut was a very good father and husband. That’s why, whenever Helmut called her, if she was free, she saw him. And they drank tequila, talked about literature, about their lives, about foreign films, and in the end, they slept together. Something that, in that time, Gabriela believed affected nobody. Gabriela was foolish. She felt it was nothing to her because she enjoyed Helmut’s company the as much as before and she cared about him as a friend. She stopped feeling bad about his wife because she also believed that her meetings with Helmut made him happier and that this happiness somehow benefited Marlene and their daughter. Much the same way the men who spent their lunch hour in Aliza’s motel must have felt; a reprieve, a necessary moment of selfishness.
She wasn’t sure if she would at some point return and work for Aliza again or if she would instead work as a lawyer again. She would decide when the time was right. And that could be tomorrow or years later.