I am on the phone with Scarlett. It is 99 degrees outside and humid; clothes are impractical in this weather, so I am in my underwear in the middle of the afternoon, on my back, on the couch, on the phone, sweating.
I hate how dark this apartment is. There are no windows that face the sun, at any time of day. The light is always murky, and you don't know what time it is. Scarlett's voice sounds like it's coming to me from the moon, and my own voice sounds that way, too.
"I don't want to be touched anymore," I say.
This is not kind of me. Scarlett went to New York City and went straight, got a straight job and an apartment and some friends, and came back to visit this winter looking sleek and blooming. But things can go downhill fast in a city that big, and this week she started at dancing again, at a "private club" with beds in the VIP.
"I convince guys I'm going to fuck them for fifteen minutes for $160 and then I don't do it," is what she says.
Fifteen minutes is a long time to spend in a closed room with someone who thinks they just paid to fuck you. Everything about that sounds bad. Body-in-a-dumpster bad. I don't want to be that bitch who gets out of dancing for three weeks and comes back and tells all their friends they are Ruining Their Lives, but I am scared for my friend. I want to put a fence around her eight miles high.
I noticed the strain in her voice as soon as I picked up the phone. She launched right in, talking fast, spinning plans for the future, and I hear how she is pushing herself. I know my friend. I hear her brain scrambling in all directions, heart burning at a high heat.
I soothe her, like I know how to do, and when she simmers down a little she asks me what I'm doing, and I say I've left dancing, which is no surprise. I told her my reasons months ago. I try to be cautious about what I say, because there's too much tinder on the ground to go throwing out sparks. But like the good friend she is, she puts her finger right on the sorest spot and presses down.
"What does C. think?"
I tell her I don't know. I tell her he's playing along, but that I'm not sure he really understands, which might say more about me and my lack of faith than it says about him. He hasn't said a harsh word to me, or even rolled his eyes. He tries to live peacefully with me, the hurting monster lurking in the bedroom. He doesn't complain.
But I don't know if he understands. I don't know if anyone who hadn't spent too much time in titty bars could understand how you know that it's been too much time. I don't really understand it myself, not the exact mechanics of it. I don't know why a few months ago it was fine and now it's not, or why I can't conceive of getting my things together and driving to the club. The whole routine -- the coffee I buy at the drive-in on the way there, the parking lot I pull into just at dusk, the front desk where I pay my house fees, the dressing room where I apply my make-up ritually, every stroke, every day, the same -- seems foreign, like something I've heard about but never done myself.
I'm sure C. wishes I could suck it up and go back and make a thousand dollars in a weekend like I used to do. I am sure that he wishes this because I wish it myself. If there were just some actual reason why I couldn't do it anymore. Like, if my leg were broken. If I had a reason to give him, one that I'd know he could understand.
"It's a tough job," she says. "You've done it for a long time. You got a lot of good things out of it. You're tired. It's OK."
She sounds pretty tired herself. I should stop, change the subject. We don't need to talk about how much stripping sucks right now, when she has to get off the phone and shower and shave her snatch and catch the subway to the private club with the VIP and it's waiting beds.
It feels so good, though, to know that someone understands, to be sure of it. And that's when I say it, about not wanting to be touched any more.
The pause is taught.
"Well, it doesn't get any simpler than that," Scarlett says.
"I can't do it. I really can't."
"I know. I know."
Her voice sounds tired. More tired than before? I wish I could see her face. I want to hug her, and be hugged. I wish she were here. There's not even a phone line between us, in a proper sense, just two thousand miles of electrified ether. It's not really quite enough.