Sunday, January 04, 2009

system of touch

The first thing he said was, "I can't do this." He fidgeted with the stem of his wineglass. "I'm just going to buy you a drink and go home. I'm really not interested."

Mike was from out of town. He answered an ad I placed that offered "private dancing." Private dancing might mean almost anything you can imagine, but I sent a detailed message to everyone that contacted me. The message said, you will meet me first in a public place so I can decide if you're a safety risk. You will pay me by the hour, up front. You will not touch my pussy. You will not touch my boobs. This weeded out nearly everyone, as it was meant to. Weeding out non-starters is part of why I decided to go the private dancing route in the first place.

Mike didn't mind the no-touching rule but his e-mails to me sounded nervous, spooked. I half expected him not to show up to the bar where we agreed to meet, but I do my make-up and curl my hair as though everything were going to go according to plan. I put on an office-appropriate skirt and an angora sweater over my bad-girl lingerie and take a taxi downtown.

I'm inside the bar before it occurs to me that this part might not be easy. Usually, if I'm meeting up with a stranger for the first time, I just look for the person who looks like they might be looking for someone. The bar is not busy, but there are several men here who might be Mike. Men in suits, with end-of-the-day faces. They are all looking for someone. I take a seat where I can see the door and order a martini. The third time the guy to the left of me catches my eye I stick out my hand. "Are you Mike?"

"Sorry. Not me." We scan each other. "Meeting someone?" he asks.


"Blind date kind of thing?"


I over my shoulder at the room. Men. Eyes looking and looking away. The guy to my left leans in again, starts to say something else. The waitress is bringing a menu to a man with glasses. I look at him. He looks away. I look away. I look back. He nods, finally and gives me a small reluctant wave. He's been sitting there a few minutes. Long enough for the waitress to bring him a glass of wine. I wonder how many times he looked at me and away from me before he met my eyes.

I get my coat off the back of the barstool and walk over, martini glass in hand. I keep telling myself this is hilarious, because that's how I deal with nerves. And then I sit down and he tells me he can't do this.

I know more is coming. We are not nearly done here. As soon as I see how nervous he is, I am not nervous any more. I look at him while he looks at the inside rim of his glass like something is written there. He is a small, neat man, bullet-headed, with a crew cut and black-frame glasses that would make him at home any time in the last fifty years. All the lines in his face turn down, but it isn't an unfriendly face.

He starts talking, still looking into his glass. He tells me he is married. His wife is "gorgeous" he says, and he loves her, but she has lost interest in sex now that they are both in their fifties. He has not. He misses sex, and not just sex but physical intimacy all together. "Sometimes I go to hug her -- all I want is just to hug her, just hold her and feel her against me, and I get--" he mimes a condescending pat on the shoulder "--dismissed."

I hear this story all the time. It always makes me sad. There are many kinds of loneliness, but the loneliness of the body is a fierce kind. I remember a night years and years ago when I couldn't sleep for aching, getting up and looking all over the house for something I could put in bed with me to make me feel like somebody was there.

"She keeps telling me sex over-rated," he says. "How is that supposed to make me feel?"

Bad. It's supposed to make you feel bad. Like a pervert. Like you should be embarrassed to even mention that you have desires. That's how it's supposed to make you feel. Or if it's not meant to make you feel that way, it might as well be.

He tells me about the strip clubs. The massage parlours, like the one on the edge of town back home where he goes sometimes after work, for a happy ending from somebody who'll "break the rules" in exchange for a nice tip. He looks at ads like mine, and he writes to women like me, but he's never gone through with it and he can't go through with it now.

"Don't be offended," he says. "I'm not looking for someone so young. Forties -- thirty would be the youngest. I'm not trying to re-live my youth. I don't want some perfect, model-looking girl. I want a real woman. I miss that so much, the feel of a woman, just seeing and touching."

He finishes. I lean in. I tell him that I understand. I tell him touch is a basic need, not just for us, for humans, but for every mammal. I tell him it's OK to want to look and touch. Everybody wants to look and touch. I tell him sex isn't over-rated. I tell him how much I love to dance, how much I love the sensuality of it, sharing it. I don't tell him that I know what it's like to be ashamed, to feel like a freak and a bad person for wanting what you can't beleive everybody else doesn't also want. I don't tell him that, but I tell him I understand. I tell him again that I understand. I ask him if he's ready.

He says yes, although he hasn't touched his food, hasn't even picked up his fork. He asks the waitress for the check.

It's a very nice room in a very nice hotel, but it doesn't have a good place for lapdances, just a big, stiff armchair in the corner next to a floor lamp. I turn off the fluorescent overhead light. I put music on: slow songs, mostly. It is still a hotel room. It is still frighteningly quiet. No flashing lights, no pounding bass or DJ hawking drink specials, no waitress coming by to ask us if we want a shot. Nobody but the two of us. This is not a party. This is fucking serious.

He sits in the chair. I kneel down on the floor in front of him and rest my arms on his thighs. "You're really quite beautiful," he says, looking down at me. He says it with an odd inflection, like he is contradicting what he would have thought was true.

In the end, I undress too quickly, like I did when I was new. He keeps brushing my hair out of my face but he won't meet my eyes. We don't look at each other. No ones says anything else. Everything is much too real. The CD runs out.

He asks if we can lie down on the bed, and I think it over and decide it's OK. He asks if he can undress and I ask him not to. For what seems like hours he touches my legs and back and belly. He is tender and thorough and I imagine he would be a decent lover. Finally he lies next to me and we do look each other in the eyes. I run my hands softly over his chest and he cries out in pain.

I always wondered if I could be a whore. Now I think I could be. Lying here looking at each other is so intimate, I don't think fucking could be much more so. And it doesn't hurt at all. I don't feel shame. I'm not afraid. I feel quiet, gentle.


Around midnight he says he needs to go to sleep. I get dressed, sitting on the edge of the bed so he can watch me, and then het gets up and finds his wallet, hands me an amount of money that would have been a month's salary back when I was washing dishes at the diner by the highway.

After the money changes hands, things seem to get quite cold for a moment, and I make a mental note that in the future I will always ask for money in advance to prevent this. But by the time I have my shoes and purse, he likes me again.

"Are you going to be OK?" he asks. "I hate to let you go like this." And again he says it with that odd inflection, like he's saying the opposite of what should be true. At the last minute I feel a real burst of affection for him. I lean over and give him a saucy kiss on the cheek. He looks surprised and not particularly pleased and that old joke runs through my head, You don't pay a whore to fuck you, you pay her to leave. So I leave.

I walk out past the front desk and wonder if they know what I am and what I'm doing here. Probably. I tuck the money down through the torn bottom of my coat pocket, into the lining, safe. Out in the street, even, hailing a cab, I feel like I'm trailing a vast silver comet's tail marking me out against the dark.

"Busy night tonight?" the cab driver wants to know when I get in. I squint at him, wondering what he means. He's just making conversation.


I reach down through the lining of my pocket so I can touch the money again. I still don't feel at all afraid.