I held the door open to the tiny room. It was furnished with a narrow vinyl table and one metal office chair with a sallow beige plastic seat. A wall shelf held Johnson’s baby oil, talcum powder, a yellow dispenser of hand lotion, and a neat stack of folded institutional towels. The linen service delivered on Mondays and picked up on Thursdays. I spent long moments puzzling the drivers. There was one I had a crush on. How could he come to this place and pick up these linens and smile professionally as if Emily’s was a normal business and not a rub and tug, producing heaps of bodily fluids and money?
It was my turn to work. I closed the door behind me. A man sat naked at the end of the table. His penis must have been tucked tightly between his legs because there was no hint of it. A taut, hairless V formed between his thighs, not like a vagina but like no genitalia at all. He was a man of fifty-five or sixty years, fat and starchy with straw-like white hairs sticking out of his chest, anchored by a hard, swollen stomach. I was seventeen.
My skirt was like a figure skater’s on TV: gleaming black and short, of a light nylon meant to flirt playfully with the breeze. I draped it around my waist, tied with a thin shiny cord. Delicate rhinestones shimmered on the lower left corner when I turned. My shirt was sexy dark, a clingy body suit with fine satin ribbon straps. I could have spun, my back arched, hair fanning the ice like Peggy Fleming. I was slender, long-waisted, pretty, and strong. If only I had thought of skating lessons, maybe I would be at a rink instead of a massage parlor.
I was seventeen. I itched like the towels. They came back clean, but they were scratchy and smelly. I couldn’t place the odor then—it was not Downy or Bounce or Tide. Now I know it, though. It was a mixture of bleach and semen. I hated those towels clean as much as I hated them dirty.
He laughed coquettishly like a schoolgirl passing a note in science class. Right away, I didn’t like him. I preferred johns who were businesslike, sober, even nervous. Those guys didn’t endeavor to engage me in conversation. In fact they didn’t connect with me at all; I might have been an automatic penis machine. I could service them semi-aware and later barely recall the moment-to-moment detail, like a drive home for the five hundredth time, when pulling into the carport you realize you have no recollection of the journey, the turns and stoplights, or the cars you’ve passed. When a john tugged at me to concentrate, demanded that I look at him, learn his game, play it consciously, I felt queasy and annoyed. Instead of half-closing my lids, blurring the scene, I would have to focus, receive his signals, respond accordingly—no daydreaming about kamikaze shots and beer chasers at the bar or the vinegary hoagie I’d order for dinner later.
If he were not calling for so much attention, perhaps his dimpled lumps and bald mottled scalp wouldn’t have repulsed me as much as they did. When he squirmed his bottom on the edge of the table, he reminded me of my baby brother wriggling his way out of a diaper change. How strange the world was turning out to be. Someone would pay to act like a child. And I, an actual child, would stifle my feelings to act grown, intuit their desires and pocket their cash.
The room was so small that within minutes of closing the door, a thick, musty fog of oil, dirt, and sex filled and enveloped me. It was October and the air outside had turned cool, scented with pine and composting leaves. If there were windows at Emily’s, that beautiful air, like the strong, clean hand of a hard-working woman would’ve washed the stale musk away. Tomorrow, I would buy M&Ms and little Hershey’s bars for the trick-or-treaters. My little brother wanted to be a clown. I’d bought him a rainbow wig and a red nose at the costume shop across the street from Bishop Conwell High, the Catholic girls’ school where I had just begun my senior year.
I might have been giggling somewhere, making out with a boy, listening to The Sex Pistols. That was not lost on me. But I wasn’t some TV sitcom teenager who had the luxury of an extended adolescence, though I believed that somewhere these TV families really existed. They weren’t in my neighborhood. Besides, I didn’t want to be seventeen just then. I’d had enough of being a child.
I wondered what I might lose in running to be grown and self-sufficient. I suspected there’d be some price because this was not the trajectory into adulthood I had read about in books or seen in movies. I wanted to be like Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet or the kids in A Wrinkle in Time—a brave, smart girl with a dream and the love of decent adults. But I had no sheltered nest and no hovering parents to protect me. I had to grab, lie, and risk arrest. I was a schemer and an opportunist, always looking for what I could take. And somewhere in me I worried that my arms would be empty in the end and I would be punished for my mercenary greed, my selfishness.
That I was too young to see men like this, to trade them sex for money hummed in the back of my brain. But I deliberately ignored the drone. To listen would have left me right where I was—stuck with a crazy, abusive father, no mother, no money, and no way out. I wasn’t about to pity myself. In fact, I thought I was lucky to have found a way to make so much so easily. I could squelch squeamishness, misgivings, and sadness if practical, if doing so would get me what I needed and right then, faced with a john on the table, I made the decision I would continue to make that year: to do what I had to do to get out of my parents’ house, out of the massage parlor, out of Levittown, Pennsylvania, for good.
I was never innocent like the girls who’d grown up loved and pampered with ruffled canopy beds and shiny braided hair. There was always some man trying to get his hand up my undershirt, rubbing his pelvis on me at a baptism party like it was an accident. I was not innocent. I was convinced that some babies came out clean, and others drop out of their mothers’ wombs dirty. Since I couldn’t remember ever feeling anything besides dirty, I knew I was one of the latter.
The john was giddy when he asked me, “Where is it?” meaning his dick. I didn’t know and didn’t like that he’d unsettled me. I smiled sweetly, lowered my chin, like an eager but bashful child. He wanted to scare me, but also he wanted to play the coquet. Confused, I opted to play the submissive girl in hopes of hurrying the session along.
“I don’t know. Where is it?” I asked, doe-eyed.
He thrust his lower lip out and taunted me in baby talk. “Maybe I don’t have one.”
I thought fleetingly that maybe, in fact, he didn’t have a dick. I ran through the possibilities in my head: circular saw accident, birth defect, operation gone wrong … but then how did he pee?
“Can you guess where it is?” His cloying voice startled me back to the scene.
I shrugged my shoulders teasingly. Then I realized how stupid I was. Of course he had a dick or he wouldn’t be here. It was his little power trip to confuse the stupid whore, to see the wheels turn behind my eyes. This was funny to him.
“Why don’t you show me it,” I solicited.
“Are you sure I have one?”
Nauseous and irritated at his stalling, I thought what I really wanted was to spit at him: I should only be so lucky that you don’t have a dick. But you’ve got one and Lord knows what game I’m going to have to play with it for the next ten or twenty minutes to earn my twenty dollars.
“Show me … please?” I begged.
At that, he parted his chubby thighs and sure enough, a dick sprang out, freed from its vise, stiff and slathered in something red. Something opaque, and thick. After a few seconds, I could see it was lipstick, waxy and movie-star crimson, like fresh blood. His cock looked garish and infected, a surreal nightmare penis in dangerous Technicolor. This will never come out of the towels, I thought. My insides sagged with the knowing that I would have to touch it to get paid.
Now it was my turn to stall. I busied myself wondering where and when he painted his dick so thoroughly and how he’d arrived at such a desire. Did he somehow connect sex with mommy’s makeup as a boy? Did he walk into the massage parlor already decorated or did he apply the color while he waited for me? No, not enough time for that. So, what then? He did this at home? Did his spouse know? What about the mess it would leave in his underwear and trousers? How would he explain that to his wife? Of course, maybe he didn’t have a wife. How did he get the lipstick, did he buy it himself, pretending it was for someone else, some woman?
He wagged it at me, reminding me of my task. I inched my hands reluctantly toward him. In a twist of luck, he requested only a simple hand job, no rubbing it on my breasts or putting it in my mouth. I had put up with this much; I was not about to lose my tip now. I put baby oil in my hands, rubbed them together in slow motion. The lipstick came off in my hands from the oil and I swallowed back a heave. He didn’t notice—his eyes were closed.
In minutes, scarlet-streaked cum and oil stained his pubic hair and my hands, releasing a suffocating stench of Johnson’s baby oil, bitter semen, and nicotine. I breathed through my mouth. But what if I ingest some part of him? I thought, then held my breath until I couldn’t, turned my face into my upper arm, and drew more air. Sometimes it worked, filling my sinuses with warm skin and my lemony perfume, but other times, when perhaps I didn’t seal my nostrils sufficiently, he wafted in across my taste buds, making me want to spit. I couldn’t reach for one of those clean/dirty towels quickly enough to wipe this mess off of my palms and from between my fingers.
I gathered every ounce of willpower to keep from vomiting. I felt frantic, but I caught myself and controlled it, the rough and rapid scrubbing of my hands with the dry towel the only evidence of my rising gorge.
I tightened the muscles low in my throat, closing my tonsils to keep from gagging in front of him. No matter how near the vomit was to launching out of my mouth, I would stop it. I had done this before and it always worked. I was stronger than those clean people with their nice families, white sheets, and blonde hair. They’d vomit now. But I wouldn’t. I laid the towel across his flaccid, lipsticked mess and nearly jogged to the bathroom. I washed—hot water and Ivory soap—many times. Again, a fresh towel, or fresh as it could be having survived hundreds, maybe thousands of scenes like this one.
I went back to the room and collected my tip as he zipped and buckled. He handed me two tens with a wink. It may have only taken fifteen or twenty minutes, but that was certainly more than twenty dollars’ worth of work, I fumed silently. I escorted him out and went into the office, where Jaylyn and Karen were waiting for johns.
I couldn’t wait to light up a Salem menthol, inhale deeply to burn away his remaining tang, and then tell the girls every rank bit of it. I was, after the fact, rather pleased to be the one with the bizarre story to tell. It was over and washed away, and what was left was my own, something I controlled. It had seemed to me that the older girls usually got all of the truly freaky guys, which I didn’t mind on one hand, but on the other I wondered if my age and inexperience caused some inhibition in the johns—meaning that I wasn’t very good at my job. (How depressing, to not even be good at whoring.) Not that I craved more lipstick guys. What I wanted was to be like Jaylyn and Kimmie and Karen and Bonnie: world-wise, sophisticated, and tough.
I described his cock, its waxy coating that stuck under my nails and made it look like a dog’s penis. They scrunched up their noses and howled, Groooss!
At six, we ordered tuna hoagies with provolone cheese and hot peppers from the Pizza City just down the street. Business tended to slow up at dinnertime so that at least two of us could eat uninterrupted. I loved it when the delivery boy came into the office. I inflated with his knock, exhilarated by the cool wafts of air that announced him.
He couldn’t look me in the eye. He was shy, embarrassed, and curious at once. Better still, he was a boy of my age. It made me wildly arrogant. I was full of myself, in a state of grace that I have since come to recognize in other young working girls. I was a proud young whore feeling power for the first time in my life—over men, no less! Men, the ones who had beaten me, yelled at me, and raped me. An actual man, shy and scared of me? I gave the boy a big tip and stared boldly at him, thankful for the impression that I could have him instead of him having me.