Confessions of a Call Girl's Friend

As soon as Toni got home from a trick, she'd jump in the shower and scrub herself raw. The ritual seldom varied. I'd hear her coming up the stairs sighing loudly, dropping her clothes on the floor as she wound her way from her bedroom to the bathroom, the smell of sex lingering on her olive skin. She would scour the bathtub obsessively twice a day -- it had to be more than clean, especially after a trick. When she got in the shower, rough grains of Comet would slide under her feet and circle down the drain, washed away with soap and loathing.

When I first came to interview for a room to rent, Toni was straightforward about her occupation. "I'm a call girl," she said "I do tricks but I never bring them home." She offered me some Hamburger Helper and then changed the subject. I didn't say anything -- what could I say, really? I'd never known a prostitute -- or call girl -- and I needed a place to live. A part of me thought it would be exciting to observe that seedy nocturnal underworld, to get an insider's look from a safe distance. I could vicariously experience the outrageous, find silent answers to the questions everybody wanted to ask. I thought it would be glamorous somehow, and Toni did not let me down.

Watching Toni get ready for a trick was like watching an elaborate backstage preening session. Toni was unconventionally striking, and her strong, aquiline nose gave her an almost arrogant air. At 33, she had resigned herself to being more Rubenesque than waif, but she still had the face, and a beautiful one. Having bathed and covered her breasts in baby oil and rubbed sweet cocoa butter onto her thick thighs, she would stand naked in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom, trying to decide on the night's look. It would be a choice among creamy doe eyes, smoky temptress, pink candied innocence or her sophisticated but minimal look. The eyes were first, followed by the mouth, sculpted perfectly into a handsome burgundy flower. Then came the clothing and shoes. She would put her large, naked frame in the crowded hall closet, fishing through silk, cotton, polyester, polka dots and stripes, searching for the perfect outfit to complete her chosen look. Toni's look meant everything -- her value was physical, and without physical appeal she was valueless. "How's this?" she would ask, sometimes shouting from the hall closet, never listening for an answer. Her mind was elsewhere.

All of Toni's clients were regulars, a group of around 20 or so men who knew the routine. They would page her and leave a message, a time and a place: late evenings, weekends, three, four times a week, anonymous apartments, downtown hotels. They knew the price was $200 an hour -- straight sex only -- and they didn't ask for special favors. They also knew they had to talk to her before she dropped her panties. That was her rule. And she'd listen and respond, as she was well-read, confrontational and engaging. A thinking man's whore.

What they didn't know was that she gave them nicknames, comical and cruel, analyzed their motives, dismissed them in one breath. There was only one who had her complete sympathy, but he was a quadriplegic. "Stump," she'd call him, laughing uncomfortably. He had no arms and no legs. He couldn't touch back, couldn't put a condom on his own penis. She'd have to lift herself onto him and hold him in position. She'd return from these nights feeling a mixture of pity and disgust. It was tragedy in its purest sense -- tragic and comic -- and she'd moan on the way to the shower, "I've got to get Stump man off of me!" Only he could never be on her, only in her. I'd often wonder how he even managed to pick up the phone to call her. And I'd wonder why she always went back. But if she didn't, who would? She was doing community service, she said.

After she showered, Toni would put on sweats and plunk herself down in front of the television. She followed the afternoon soaps, which she would tape during the day when she was temping at an office job, and she'd sit, a bag of Doritos in one hand, the remote control in the other, consumed by the lives of the rich, misguided and intensely passionate. She could trace each character's history. She would never forgive X for giving the baby up for adoption, and she saw plots within plots, based on the characters' past motivation. During the commercials she would either fast-forward or go to the bathroom, where she'd leave the door open and fill me in on the state of her bladder. She always had infections, always had to go, and it was always painful. Once she got anal warts from a client which had to be internally cauterized. She bled for days. Her body wasn't hers anymore -- it was theirs. They had damaged her permanently. They were still there -- in her symptoms -- long after the money had gone.

And the money went quickly. On body lotions and creams, lavender bath oil, salon shampoo, translucent slabs of mango-scented soap; on hair gels, nail polish, sticks of mascara, lip pencils, lipstick, rouge brushes, nail clippers; on perfume, American Spirit cigarettes, pantyhose, shoes, taxi money for rainy days; on her weekly ad, phone bills, ground French roast, cat food, Valium, not to mention a wardrobe of tantalizing outfits.

Toni made twice what I made a week in two nights and spent it twice as fast. Sometimes she had trouble making the rent and she'd panic because her biggest fear was ending up on the street. I sympathized, though I didn't understand. I was so much poorer, but I was used to doing without, used to keeping my hands in my pockets while I shopped. Toni wasn't. Money had a different value for her -- maybe no value at all. It was here and then it was gone, no matter what it had cost.

Toni often bought food with pennies, loose change floating around her bedroom. She'd go down the block to the local store to buy Doritos (her dinner) and generally aggravate the store owner, who had to meticulously count the change. Despite the fact that this is where she did most of her food shopping, Toni despised the guy behind the counter. This was because he had insulted her one night when she went in to buy cigarettes with a date. The owner told her date, "You look great tonight," and when Toni said, "What about me?" the man answered "You look horrible." She turned on her heels and left, angry and embarrassed. She never said anything to his face but I couldn't help laughing to myself every time we walked in the store.

Toni was broke on my birthday but she came out to celebrate with me anyway. I'd only been living in town two and a half months and I only knew a handful of people so Toni brought a few friends. We ended up in the back room at a classy bar, toasting my 29th in what looked like a Spanish courtyard, me and a couple of whores drinking merlot.

As we became drunker, the conversation shifted from silly debauchery to serious contemplation. Toni and her friend, a South African call girl, swapped client stories, sniggered and snorted with disgust, and looked over at me to see if I was following them. "You know you could do it," the South African said to me in her clipped speech. "All it takes is the first time." Toni nodded, adding, "You think you're not going to go there, you're not going to cross that line, but once you have sex for money, you've changed. You can do it." They tried to convince me -- the money's so good, think of what you could do with it all. In my drunken reverie it almost sounded plausible. The next morning I went to work with a hangover, wondering why I worked so many hours for nothing.

I had a friend in college who fantasized about being a prostitute. At her boyfriend's insistence, she started doing massage at a massage parlor, giving oily hand jobs on the side. At first the money was good and the customers were innocuous. She would have us in hysterics relating how a customer asked for "something extra," how she'd squeeze his balls so he'd climax faster. Her boyfriend was excited by the money -- they could go to Spain for the summer, buy a new VCR -- and it seemed like he was even a little bit excited by the image of his bikini-clad girlfriend rubbing strangers. But it wasn't the fantasy full of well-adjusted, merely lonely men, attractive and charismatic, that we had all imagined. They were aggressive, needy, filthy and unwashed. They scammed her, and finally she walked away with no illusions.

I remember wondering then how she could casually justify the dehumanization of an intensely personal act, just for a financial outcome. Of course, I knew money was money, and more of it could never be considered a bad thing. But watching what she went through made me realize: I never wanted it that much.

Toni, like my friend, had the same kind of thinking -- money was the goal and she wanted to take the fastest route -- only Toni didn't walk away when she found out the price.

Toni never really talked about why she started turning tricks. She came from a good family that sounded no more dysfunctional than most. Her parents had divorced and she was incredibly close to her brother and sister. Growing up, they never had to do without. She had a typical Manhattan childhood and grew up fast, she could shoot her mouth off with the best of them, she was brash and extremely intelligent. She shoplifted her way through high school, went clubbing, tried her hand on the comedy circuit, was a flight attendant one week, a beautician the next. Somewhere along the way she started doing tricks.

And it was fun. Soon she had the wardrobe, the drug habit and the friends that came along with it. She looked good and she felt even better. She was young, voluptuous, ripe. The clients were a faceless blur; all she remembered from those days were hotel lobbies and elevators, champagne and chandeliers. There was the trick from Texas who filled a punch bowl with caviar; there was the time she stole an art-deco lighting fixture from an expensive suite and shoved it under her dress. That was the light in our living room.

But in spite of all she'd seen and done, Toni was a white-picket-fence romantic. Her bedroom looked like a baroque chapel, full of mirrors and light, filled with green rococo drapes and painted white furniture. Her bed was covered in muted feminine tones. She wanted children and to be aroused by witty conversation and sweetly hushed affections. She loved reading poetry and watching sappy films; she was deeply emotional. But she couldn't fit into the world she dreamed of -- she was too jaded. She had seen too much of the detached, carnivorous side of men. She knew men who paid for their satisfaction as if it were a piece of steak. She knew men didn't value what women valued. Men wanted to fuck aggressively and they got off when there was no love at all. She coped with these personal revelations by saying, "You might as well get paid." After all, she would point out, other women prostituted themselves for love, a stable marriage, some kind of commitment or promise, or for dinner. But what they got was sex, and Toni at least got paid.

I don't think she knew how jaded she had become, how a decade of prostitution had seeped into her attitude. She was drawn to rich men. Sometimes she tried to date, but invariably would end up treating the guy like a trick. She'd have sex with him immediately, because that's what he wanted, and then expect him to pay -- for dinner, a dress and, once, her dental bill. Once he found out she was a hooker, he'd want her to stop doing tricks, but then she'd have no money and it was up to him to provide. It never lasted very long. Her affection was too expensive. I'd run into her ex-lovers at the movie theater or a coffee shop and they'd ask after her but I never saw them again. It seemed like some of them wanted to "save" Toni from her debauched life, but Toni wasn't ready to be saved. She thought Pretty Woman was a juvenile male fantasy.

Not that she didn't think about giving it up. Shortly after I moved in, Toni decided she wanted to get out of the profession and she was at a critical turning point, it seemed. She was studying for law school, temping although it wasn't good money, and trying to slip back into the "normal" society she had shunned. She became increasingly conflicted when she went on a trick. She needed the money but she hated the routine. She didn't want to be touched. She didn't want to have to pretend anymore. Sometimes she couldn't. She started canceling tricks, going down to one a week unless she really needed the money. She grew nervous before going out.

Once she ran out of Valium when I had a few pills, and she begged me for one so she could sleep when she got home. She was shaky but I refused, thinking to myself that she was well-connected and had the money, and emergency Valium wasn't so easy for me to come by. "I don't know if I can live with you anymore," Toni had said, glaring at me with eyes full of hate. "It's all about you, isn't it? I don't think we relate." I almost sobbed, half in anger, half in grief. Her desperation was so tangible and yet I expressed no pity. I just walked away, determined to move out.

Toni once said to me, "How can I cry if I can't cry for myself?" I don't remember seeing her cry. I saw her laugh, I saw her strut, I heard her anger and her humor, I saw her cuddle her cat and babysit for her friends. I cried to her when my grandfather died, I cried to her about my bland, senseless life, and Toni always gave me a hug, saying over and over, "I love you, girl." But she didn't cry, though sometimes her voice cracked. Instead she got sick, she had insomnia, she sneezed and cursed as she got out of bed. But when she left the house, she wore a smile -- even if it was just painted on.

This story originally ran in the Metro Silicon Valley, where Dara Colwell used to be a staff writer.

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