There is something preposterous about Jim and at the same time something mysterious.
Jim was a customer of mine. Sort of. Not a great one. He never bought many dances, and he talks a lot -- softly, quickly, continuously. There never is a good moment to get up and walk away. You just have to get up and go. Then again, the things he says are fascinating, whether they are true or not. Some of them seem like they could not possibly be. Others I know for myself are fact.
I used to ask him to tip me for my time. "Oh my God," I would say. "I could just sit here and listen to you talk all night." (True.) "I've totally lost track of time." (Not true. I am a cyborg with a digital time-keeping device implanted in my lower left eyescreen. I know exactly what time it is all the time and every ten minutes an alarm goes off that says you owe me money.) "I could have made a hundred dollars by now if I was working!"
Gee whiz mister, and he would reach deep into his pocket and pull out a money clip stuffed with cash -- now who on earth carries a money clip stuffed with high-denomination bills? I have to think that the bottom 3/4 of it is all ones with just some Bens and Grants and Andies dressing up the outside -- but he peels off $100 and gives it to me. And I open up my eyes like tin cups, Gee thanks mister.
A friend who works at another club he frequents told him I was dancing privately now. He e-mailed me. We agreed to go to lunch. I did not think Jim would probably be very interested in getting private dances from me. Jim's extracurriculars are at another level. He is what you call a hobbyist, one of those men for whom paying for sex is not only an expediency but a lifetsyle and an all-consuming passion. They hang out in the Locker Room forum on ASPD and coin the acronyms -- DFK, GFE, DATY -- that make some of my favorite sex acts sound like something being traded on the NYSE. They have elaborate personal scoring systems for the women they pay for sex, based on their age, their looks, whether they are pro or non-pro. They have ATF's. They have types.
Jim's type is young. Not dancers -- waitresses. New waitresses, green but not innocent, knocked around a little bit already but still fool-hardy. He takes them out to lunch and opens the door for them. He treats them to the hair salon and the nail salon and Nordstrom's for a pretty dress and a pair of shoes and then to a comedy club downtown and then back to a hotel room where they fuck, for about the price she would have made in tips that day if it had been an average-good day.
Jim tells me all this over lunch, explicitly. Some of it I knew or guessed before. He describes his last girl for me, tells me her name and I remember her: a pugnacious little cocktail waitress with glossy, dark corkscrew curls and pale, slender arms and legs. She was 20. Jim says she used to meet him at the club and leave with him, ditching her car in the parking lot so her boyfriend would think she was at work.
He says she's a dancer now, but not doing well. She called him up a few nights ago, panicked, begging for money. He met up with her and gave her a few hundred bucks. "I told her she shouldn't have started dancing," he said. "She's the kind of girl you want when you can't have her."
As always, I am appalled and transfixed. I feel like I'm talking to an invented character. He can't be real. Maybe he is a woman. Maybe he is a pathological liar. Maybe he is a kingpin of the underground. I just don't know. And always so open with me, I don't know if he is confessing, or oblivious, or truly, gloriously unashamed.
"I like girls who've never been anywhere or done anything," he told me once. "They're easier to impress." And another time: "I want someone I can't picture myself with in real life." And again, "I don't want someone who might make me feel insecure. You know us men, our fragile egos."
I can't say I've known a lot of men with egos quite this fragile, or haven't known them well. I try to be a little careful with the kind of men I know.
He says things like that, us men. He speaks for all men everywhere. He speaks for men everywhere now when he tells me that I'll never make a living doing what I'm doing, just dancing. "You know guys are going to be disappointed when they find out there's no desert menu," he says.
"Everybody knows that up front," I tell him. "I make it really clear. The only guys who do business with me are the ones who want what I offer."
He shakes his head. He tells me it will never work, and when that doesn't get me, he leans across the table, whispering, covering my hand with his: "Listen, honey, it's not safe. Sooner or later you're going to get raped. It happens to all the girls. Can't you just work for an agency? At least you'd have somebody looking out for you."
I am pretty confident there is no agency out there that would screen as obsessively as I do, that would look out for me as well as I look out for me. With all that, I know there is a non-zero chance that something bad will happen to me, but that's true every time you leave the house. Or even if you don't leave.
Besides, I can't really work for an agency because I don't do sex.
"I can't work for an agency. I don't have sex."
"I know, honey, I know. Say anything you want, but sooner or later some guy is going to make up his mind he's getting laid and he's going to get laid, understand? It always happens. Listen to me. I used to be part owner of an agency in Houston, and it happened to one of our girls, and it was a guy we all knew, a guy who was part of the community. It happens, you know. Guys are guys."
Which is not a particularly great argument for agencies and the screenings that they do, or for references, or for the so-called community, or for Jim. I don't know what to say. I'm still deep in the empathy-space I go into when I'm working, even though it is perfectly obvious to both of us by now that we are not doing business together.
I'll think about this story later and I'll want to say, Fuck you. Fuck your part-time pimping and fuck you for getting your girl raped. You are a lousy pimp, maybe lousier than most pimps, because you're really a mortgage broker or something and it's only a hobby to you so you don't even give the fuck you would give if it was your livelihood.
I shrug, fork up a cluster of salad. I tell him I feel about as safe as I've ever felt.
"But, sweetie, can't you at least go to a modeling studio or something? Somewhere you'd be safe. Somewhere somebody would look after you. I'm just worried about you, OK? You're a fantastic woman and I would really hate to hear that you got hurt."
I think of the modeling studios you drive past as you leave town: Mardi Gras, Ramses, Foxxies, The Doll House. Weird little storefronts tucked into shady little strip malls, next to porn stores and sex shops and the cheaper kind of nail salons. I've never been inside of one, but I imagine it's a lot like the lower-end clubs I've worked in -- the Crazy Lady or the Glass Slipper in Boston. It's small. The carpet is damp and smells damp, so at the end of the day you need a thirty-minute shower just to get the smell off you. People come and go in dark hallways lit with black-lights to make your white G-string glow like some kind of underwater fish. It feels like 1 a.m. at every time of day and it's always hovering over you, the silent pressure of everyone else is doing it and if you want to make money you will too.
"Nah," I say. "I think I'm pretty happy with the way things are going."
He throws his hands up in a heavens-what-will-we-ever-do-with-you gesture. "I guess you know best," he says.
I sneak a look at him over my next tine of salad, sopping with thin vinagrette. This is not really a very nice restaurant. I don't care if the menu is in French.
I would not have sex with Jim for any amount of money the two of us could ever agree on. Not just because he's ugly. I stopped looking at people's outsides a long time ago. It doesn't make sense when you're a dancer. What people looks like doesn't matter. What matters is if they will look in your eyes and listen when you say no and touch you like they would like to be touched instead of fondling you and rolling you around like a melon at fruit stall.
It's not just because Jim's skin looks like the top of my kombucha jar. I'm not that shallow. Or maybe I am. And if I am, well, then I wouldn't make a very good escort, even if I wanted to. God knows I haven't got any moral or ethical dilemma with it. The two main components of escorting -- money and sex -- are both things I like a lot. But goddamn if I'm not just picky.
After lunch Jim walks me to my car. "You know," he says on the way, "I've always thought you were one of the bravest women I ever knew."
He makes a fluttery gesture with his hand over his belly. "You know. The scar."
Oh. That. I don't even think about it anymore.
"You never covered it up. You were just out with it. And all the other girls worrying about how to pay for their boob jobs."
Smile. Laugh. Shrug. Hug. I don't have anything left to say.
One time he told me he'd never ask a woman to sleep with him if he didn't know she'd say yes. "I don't want to be shot down," he said. "Men hate to be shot down."
Everybody hates to be shot down, not just men. He comes close though, as he's hugging me goodbye. "If you ever want to do the professional girlfriend thing, you know who to call first," he says. "When you're ready for somebody to take care of you."
End hug. Disengage. Smile again. Still deep in empathy space, although we no-sale'd so long ago I couldn't even find you the receipt. So maybe the empathy thing is not something I do for the customers. Maybe it's something I do for myself.
I roll the window down to wave as I pull out of the parking lot and then he's gone except for the smell of his cologne which will make it with me all the way home.