Horizontal Lives

True Tales of the Infamous Courtesan: Persephone N. Hades and her Horizontal Life underground. How she got there, her mis-adventures and her struggle to re-surface.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Adjusting to the Underground--Part 1

It was summer 1989. The month I spent working for Ellen, seemed like years. Life had changed overnight. Although this new job dizzied me with excitement from the enormous sums of money to be made and the chance to pay off my bills, it also filled me with an illusive sense of panic.

I knew I couldn’t do this for a long time.
I wouldn’t.
This was not my life. This was a stop-gap measure.
I was playing beat-the-clock.
Every evening when I went to work, and every morning when I lay down exhausted, I felt the timer ticking. How long could this gold rush last before I got a life-threatening disease or was raped or killed or arrested or lost my friends once they found out? How long could I live two separate and secret lives? How long could I work thinking of myself as a ‘temp’, before I had no choice but to admit that I was actually a Prostitute?
And also, somewhere deep inside me, I felt the whole thing must be a fluke—that I would be found out and men wouldn’t pay to see me anymore. It could all dry up at any moment so before it did I put myself on the schedule to work with Ellen every night of the week for the unforeseen future.

Then too, there was one question I hadn’t even thought of that was about to blindside me: What if I met someone and fell in love? That would put me out of work, out of money and back into debt, lickety-split.

Days and nights became a blur. I was obsessed with the opportunity to get out of debt. At 5pm every evening, I started the ritual of showering, shaving, blow-drying, hot-curler-ing, applying make-up until finally, at 7, I made the call to the office to tell them I was ready. Then I sat, wearing only a bra, panties and stockings, (so I didn’t wrinkle my dress), reading a book and waiting by the phone for that first call. When the phone rang, I listened to Ellen or one of her phone-girls chirp, “got a call for you baby doll”, then dutifully took down the information: the guy’s name, first and last, his address and how he would be paying—cash or credit card and checked my purse for the essentials: condoms, K-Y, Massage oil, feminine wipes, make-up and a twenty for cab fare to start the night off with. (I left out the candles and ‘How to Make Love” book—now rendered purposeless.) I grabbed my keys and headed out into an unknown evening.

If it was a busy night, it went like this: hail taxi, smile at door hoping the client doesn’t turn me away, call Ellen to sign in and get time started. ‘Get business out of the way’ and tuck it into the deep recesses of my purse.
Onwards to the bathroom to breathe and buy time, get wet with K-Y.
Talk, flirt, take clothes off, massage, ooky-ooky with one eye watching the minutes click by on his digital clock.
The hour passes, and Ellen’s time-is-up-call comes in.
Back to the bathroom to refresh in case another call is pending.
Re-dress, give Ellen’s business card with my 2 or 3 hundred dollar name written on the back, (whomever I was that particular call), and head outside to a payphone to call Ellen.

Once connected with the office, take down the information of the next ‘call’, (usually with lipstick pencil on the back of the previous information). Catch another cab ‘quick like a bunny’—a half-hour to get there from the last phone call in the other guy’s apartment—(the time limit before a fine is imposed). Arrive at the hotel or apartment and do it all again until Time itself has just become ‘check in, check out’ and it is 6 in the morning.

Trudge to Ellen’s as the lights in the city are neutralized by the rising glow of the morning. Hand off my cash and credit card slips, all of which I have shakily recorded in my spiral notebook in cabs throughout the night. Make my way home, Holly Golightly-style, still dressed in evening clothes, in the brightness of the morning, eyes at my feet, weaving, through the bustling rush hour crowd. Fall into bed without removing my makeup. Wake several hours later to get to the gym by 1, back home for a nap by 4, sleep until 5 and do it all again.

True it was more exhausting than most jobs I have had in the past but a zillion times more lucrative. And strangely enough, more emotionally satisfying, although I hadn’t discovered the reason for that yet.

On a slow night, the routine began in the same way, except the waiting time between 7, when I was ready, and perhaps 9 or 10, when I went out, became challenging trying to stay fresh. This included many trips to the mirror to re-powder and re-curl and, if I hadn’t been called by 9, my heart would pound with the fear that it was all over. I would then just head into the office to hang out with the other girls and ‘put my face in’, hoping they hadn’t forgotten about me. Once at the office, I chain-smoked, with lingerie clad girls, limbs sprawled over sofa and chairs, gossiping and giggling about ‘calls’ until the noise got out of hand and Ellen gave a bull yell from her desk for us to ‘Shut-up girls!’ Immediately hushed, our eyes under lowered lids, we tittered like scolded toddlers. Before long, we were whispering, which soon gave way to talking and the noise growing again, Ellen barking and the entire episode repeating itself ad nauseam.

I was always on until 6 a.m., whether I went out or not, so either way, I would pour myself into bed exhausted at the same time each morning and repeat the ritual over.

Relieved I hadn’t landed in the gutter after taking this wild leap into this underground world, I was able to plow through the first few weeks as long as I kept emotional blinders on. There was a red-hot shame burning inside me that I was vigilant to keep penned safely away from my consciousness.

I felt this business was wrong, not just in the eyes of society, but from the marrow of my bones, I sensed it was so far away from what men and women needed to be to each other. From what I felt instinctually of life and soul and art and essence, it was so far away from what male and female were spiritually supposed to be for one another, so far away from what the godliness of our unions could inspire. A rage toward all men, boiled in my blood.

A rage that would eventually be dissolved as I grew in the business. A rage that would be replaced by a deeper understanding and love. But for the moment, there was help in keeping me ensconced.

My blue book motivated me. It was a large blue ledger with all my debts recorded, single-spaced on countless pages. Included was the $45,000.00 for nine years of college loans, credit card bills with absorbent interest fees used for living expense during those university years, past due medical bills and so on.

Once a week, with a glass of wine, I gleefully reduced zeros and sometimes whited-out entire lines. The pages were shrinking, and their reduction meant freedom. Eventually, if I could travel from red to black, I could even start a Theatre Company of my own, putting my life back on track. If agents wouldn’t see me because I was ‘un-saleable’ and casting directors wouldn’t hire me, I would put myself to work as an actress. Each line that left the blue book was a gust of fresh wind blowing away the patch of fog in front of my dreams, making my hopes more visible.

Besides my own financial needs and future dreams egging me on, there was the way of being, of thinking, the girls and even the clients had, that facilitated the division of attachment and stopped the mind from registering what was really going on--not that I knew what was going on.
That would take years to come to an understanding of, and could only be reached, as they say, by traveling to Hades and back.

In the meantime, I recognized the attitude of the girls and their way of putting an airtight border around their activities by seeing the clients as an anomaly. These were not men you would meet in ‘real life’. These men were gross. Their saliva and bodily fluids were disgusting. They could carry a disease. These men were to be laminated before being touched. You would never meet one of these men in the outside world. This was a chess game; a political power struggle and these men were the enemy.

The clients, these men, returned the invisible feeling by treating us much the same. We were a mere business transaction, like puppets, there to be used and forgotten. Most of this raw despising never reared its head on the actual calls. There we flirted and flattered, stroked egos and pretended, but it was present like a bad odor. So, for the time being, I played the unspoken game, imagining no other way to exist within this new universe, and thus too, remained a safe distance from my heart.

Although the hours created a predictable structure, and the innate almost cursory behavior kept a safety barrier, the job was so far from routine that it was almost frighteningly adventuresome. Obviously it was naughty, and under the paradigm of our times, shameful and therefore necessarily concealed.

But this secrecy caused a split in my psyche, causing me to think of my daytime existence as my life ‘above ground’, a.k.a. my ‘real life’, traveling at the pulse of the rest of the world, and my night adventures as my life ‘underground’, where only a few covertly tread. For all of it, there was a strange juiciness traveled through my blood during the first few weeks, living underground. I attribute this in part to my own insecure nature. Having been disposed of so thoroughly by the men of my past, there was something tingly about the idea of men paying to be with me.

Riding the buses in the daytime, in my ‘real life’, I studied the faces of the other passengers to see if they could guess that this plain girl sitting next to them was secretly a highly paid call girl. I delighted in the knowing that I had a secret other self they couldn’t even begin to guess at. I also attribute this mysterious titillation to the unexpected improvisational nature of the work—never knowing what the challenge would be behind each new door, and having to make the situation work no matter what oddity unveiled itself. O

ne such oddity was Mr. Ali.

I never knew whether Ali was his first name or last name or from what Arabic nation he hailed, but he was my first fan and my passage into Ellen’s good graces.

“Thank Alla for Ali.” I would say to Cait brandishing my blue paper with his information, as I breezed out the office door every other night by 8. Cait would answer by crossing herself Catholic style, then ‘salaaming’ her hands downward in a fluttery motion.

His office, if that’s what it was, was always dark. Only bright colored blinking trails from a neon-lit New York, illuminated the almost empty, long, rectangular space. It was a ground floor entrance. He peeked though a slice in the door and slipped me in as if I was entering a speak-easy. Black curly hair, against coffee brown skin. Until my eyes adjusted, his hulking mass was only discernable against the dimness as a moving shadow.

It didn’t occur to me until years later, how dangerous the situations I was walking into could have been. I suppose I didn’t allow myself to think of it. If I had, I could never have gone.

A miser with words, Mr. Ali nodded his head toward a chair on the side of a desk, then followed and sat in the big chair behind it as if we were going to start a business interview. It was always the same. “Tell me about your life.” He would say.

The first time I saw him, I thought he meant it, so I began to tell him about the RFDS and Chicago and so on until he let out a heavy sigh, crossed his hands in back of his head, the old chair creaking as his weight leaned it backward.

“Oh. My life.” I said, catching on quickly. I went on to describe how I was lost in New York and had no money and needed someone to help me.
This was the ticket—or a ticket.
After about ten minutes into my flirty lamentations, his chair would groan forward as he placed his hands folded together on the desk and motion me with his chin onto the stage—the rectangle of wooden planks covered with knotty wreaking carpet stretched out in front of the desk.
Each time, I answered with wide-eyed innocence, “Up here?”
He would nod, exhausted, as if this was the ending to a long difficult day.

I took the three steps up to the stage; their creaks breaking the eerie silence under my heels. Turning around to face him, in character now, (something in the realm of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’), I would begin the dramatic version of my tale of woe, chattering on and unbuttoning simultaneously.

All this, of course, dragged out in slow motion to fill the time allotment.

'Oh, I was so confused and frightened'
(dress is unbuttoned and drops to the floor),
and 'oh, I didn’t want to have to do work like this but if there was no other way, then there was no other way.'
(Wearing bra, panties, stockings and heels only now.)
And 'I hoped he would be kind enough to hire me'
(feet in ballet second position, knees bent, hips grinding subtly, rolling from side to side).
Or 'oh, that I was worthy of his help.'
(Turn around showing my bottom, leaning over a bit.)
And 'oh, how do these things happen to me.'
(Looking over my shoulder at him with cat eyes, then slowly turning back around to face him.)

At about this point, his arm would be in a furious up and down motion from behind the desk.
It was time.
But not yet.
Even though a beginner, I had learned to time it just right.
The phone startles the air with a loud chime. Exasperated, he grabs the receiver by the second ring.
“Yes.”
(Ellen, I know, is saying, ‘Mr. Ali, sir, It’s Ellen. Is everything alright with my little Gwen?’)
“Yes.”
(‘Would you like to keep her with you for one more hour or will you be sending her back to me?’)
“Keep her.”
(Thank you sir. I will be calling you then.’)
“Yes.”
Placing it back on the base, he nods for me to ‘pick it up where we left off.’

I am into my second hour. Double the money. No need to run to a pay phone or sit in the office and wait. Not only is he a repeat client for me but I am now ‘an extender’ in Ellen’s eyes, (one who can mange to stay more than the initial hour). My esteem is growing.
Back to the game. Another hour to fill.
I change things up to make it more interesting for myself.

Like a sleeping maiden, I stretch out long, lying on my side, one arm extended out above my head, on the darkened stage. Unsure of what to do next, feeling his eyes on me, expectant, my lids close. Pretending to be asleep, I am waiting for that first impulse to rise in me like it used to in acting class. To buy time, I slowly trace my breasts with graceful, teasing fingers. My other hand, sleepwalking over my body, finds it’s way into my panties simulating masturbatory circles.

Then it happens—my imagination ignites, it’s flame, taking hold.

The stage grows a forest of purple trees. The ground is lush with soft grass and pine needles. There is the night cooing of an owl. It is just he and I—he, my love, my Troilus. Lifting my head, I search through the woods to see him, sitting in the distance watching me. I speak the only words that come to me. Words I had kept encased since I played with them in an exercise at school.

“Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and day for many weary months.”

He offers no objection to the language, only blinks.

As if from his mouth, I hear the lines that are supposed to come next: (“Why was my Cressid, then, so hard to win?”)

And from, what is to Mr. Ali, silent air, I respond to his line just heard in my head. I look up at him shyly, clutching my dress to cover my almost-nakedness.

“Hard to seem won. But I was won, my lord,”
Tossing the dress of to the side, crawling like a tigress on all fours toward him, I continue,
“With the first glance that ever—Pardon me.”
(Sitting back on my heels, crossing my body with modest arms.)
“If I confess much, you will play the tyrant.”

His coal eyes burn me but his forearm is raising and lowering again so I continue, skipping ahead in the speech, inching toward him, letting fall one bra strap at a time.

“Sweet, bid me hold my tongue.”
(The bra, unhooked, is flung backward into the forest.)
“For in this rapture, I shall surely speak the thing I shall repent.”
(Stopping at his desk, which, in my mind’s eye becomes the hill that my prince hides behind),
“See!”
(Slither on top of the 'hill'),
“See!”
(Lying breasts exposed, back arched.)
“Your silence, in cunning dumbness, from my weakness draws my very soul of counsel.”
(Eyes closed, head back, nipples to the sky, turning my neck to face him, pleading with soft pouty lips),
“Stop my mouth.”

He does as he was beckoned to do, albeit not the way Shakespeare would have imagined it. The entirety of his hardness is jammed through my lips hitting the back of my throat. My head snaps away too fast to maintain the coyness of the game.

Recovering, I wag my finger.
“Nay nay, m’lord.” I gack. “Thou canst not without some protection.” (Poor Shakespeare!)
(Sweet smile, batting eyelashes.)
My eyes and hands divide camps. My gaze steady, twinkling, holding his prisoner whilst my hand, blind and frantic, pummels the depths of my purse, finally retrieving the sacred condom. Once covered, he pulls the narrow crotch of my panties to the side, and without pause, plunges into me. The abruptness startles my body. The only way to get through is by diving back into my imagination. Submerging, I feel myself as Cressida being penetrated by Troilus for the first time; my moans infused with the pleasure of giving myself to my true love. His cries of cumming, in Arabic, are deluged by the ring of the phone.

The water closet—I dare not call it an actual bathroom—was filthy, stinking of acidic urine and ammonia. There I re-dressed, holding my breath against the smell, standing with my panties pulled off to one side in a partial squat to pee over the seat-less, grime-smudged toilet, listening to Mr. Ali finish with Ellen’s call.

Surrounded by dirty white industrial buckets, gray-headed mops, sopping glops of forgotten toilet paper pasted to the floor, I washed my hands, squishing them soap-less under the trickle of water that constantly seeped from the broken faucet.

After cleaning myself with the feminine wipe I carry in my purse, I put the refuse back in my bag not to leave any signs of my presence. In the plaster-splattered cracked mirror, I re-trace red lipstick onto what looks to be twenty-seven different pairs of lips.

Finally, I count the money: four hundred dollars-- two hundred for me and two hundred for Ellen, and it’s only 10:30.

And, I was able to practice my Shakespeare.

Sort of.

(I’m sure the entire episode cost Shakespeare a roll in his grave.)

Can’t do that waitressing.

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