by Allison Adato
What is the appropriate response when one of your best and
oldest friends calls you up to say that for the last three years
sheís been working as a call girl?
Act shocked and you could insult her. Ask for salient details
and you appear insensitive.
I think thatís what first came out of my mouth. Then, "Are you
"Iím okay," said Liz (not her real name), whom I had known
since we met in a ballet class when we were 14. I had stopped
taking classes years ago, but she continued and had, I thought,
been working in Boston as a dancer and occasionally as a
receptionist when she needed extra cash. "Iím fine," she
insisted. "I am. Iím not doing it anymore."
I excused myself for my initial speechlessness, then
sputtered out a series of questions born mostly of fear. Of
drugs. Or AIDS. Or even of a really unappealing character with
whom sex would be just plain icky.
Nothing terrible had happened, she said. She hadnít been beaten
or raped. She wasnít drug addicted, nor was she HIV-positive.
She had, however, had sex with several icky men. I wanted to
know how many--admit it, you want to know too--but I was
too ashamed to ask. There were more than a few particulars
about which I was too ashamed to ask. What did she charge?
What perversions had been asked of her? Could she, did she,
ever refuse? Did she have repeat customers? Any who wanted
"just to talk?"
DROPPING THE GOSSIP BOMB
Instead, I asked if she was seeing a therapist. She was. I
asked if she needed anything. She didnít. I told her I loved her.
She said she loved me too. Understandably, she asked that I
not mention this to our friends. I promised I wouldnít, and I
didnít. I was proud of myself for keeping such a big, salacious
secret. I was a wonderful friend.
But I was also bursting. The gossip at work treaded aimlessly
over the same couplings and uncouplings, slanders, and bored
griping. Having this news was like holding a great poker hand:
The pleasure was in the revealing. As sorry as I felt that Liz
had been in a situation where prostitution seemed the best
solution, so, too, did I savor having provocative new material
to meet the demands of lunchtime or cocktail-party prattle
I began telling people who had never and would never meet Liz.
If anyone was discussing something that even remotely
touched upon the sex industry, I would listen, then casually
trump their storied by stating that I had a friend who had been
a prostitute, and this was what she said. Remember those
commercials for the broker E.F. Hutton? It was like that.
People listened. And I chatted away, as comfortably as this
yearís starlet curled up on the guest chair with Jay Leno
lobbying softball questions. Whatever they wanted to know, I
had the answers--answers I acquired with none of the pain or
danger or free-floating nausea that I suspected accompanied
the experience. I was a terrible friend.
THE TRICKS OF HER TRADE
But I couldnít stop. It wasnít simply dropping this gossip bomb
and seeing each new listeners reaction ("Wow!") that was so
addictive, though that was fun, too. It was the power of having
knowledge that few people do. From my chats with Liz, I had
repeated funny riffs (the guy with the Q-tip fetish) and
surprising details (she carried a spoon to press credit card
imprints onto the carbon sales slips she kept in her purse. I
relayed her poetic touches (she had pulled her call-girl name
from the Bible), as well as her rituals (she always asked
customers to put her payment on the table because, she said,
"I didnít like the idea of money changing hands"). That was
just one of the many hints that Liz had needed to distance
herself from her own reality. But I ignored them, and instead
focused on the great anecdotes, like the one about the
midwestern cross-dresser who wore a set of plastic breasts
strapped across his hairy torso and pawed through the
Borghese in her makeup bag. "I could afford Borghese in those
days," she sighed.
Everyone wanted to know what type of prostitute Liz had been:
the bad kind--a streetwalker supporting a drug habit? Or the
good kind--a high-priced call girl with a note: "Please excuse
Liz for selling her body. Sheís putting herself through school"?
It was important to me that Liz not sound stupid or reckless.
She didnít have a pimp. She had two "agents," both women, who
screened each client. Men who called had to give their real
names and a credit card number. Then Lizís pager would beep.
Sheíd call the office for the clientís name and number and
contact him herself. If he sounded all right, they would meet
at his home or hotel. Drugs were rarely involved. And the
patrons, mostly married men, wanted to use condoms. "The
first thing you do is check his ID," explained Liz, as if she
were prepping me for my own stint. "You got paid $500 an
hour, up front, half of which goes to the agency," she
continued. "Then you ask if heís a cop. He has to tell you,
otherwise itís entrapment." Had she picked this up on her own,
or was there an orientation course?
WHAT MADE HER DO IT?
Some people treated Lizís life as a riddle they needed to
crack. Had she been sexually abused? Did her parents abandon
her to join an ashram? They needed something that would
diminish her from their sisters, their daughters, their own
The truth is that nothing in our shared history could have
portended her future. We were so much alike--from our
upper-middle class Jewish families, to the jean jackets we
traded back and forth, to our twin obsessions with David Bowie and
Lou Reed. I can remember Liz smoking in the parking lot
outside the dance studio, opening a package of Marlboros,
taping the bottom, tweezing out one cigarette, and returning
it to the pack upside down, "for luck." Does this mean underage
smokers grow up to be prostitutes?
I can easily call up one our countless conversations about
sex--Liz, who had been there, relaying information to me.
"No," she assured me, "there is no possible chance a guy will
ever have to pee during oral sex."
Girls who lose their virginity in high school--are they future
hookers? What about teens with eating disorders? I remember
once when she decided she needed to take off a few pounds,
Liz became, briefly, bulimic and would vomit at will. I was
repulsed, but also fascinated.
This is, to some extent, also how I felt about her career
choice. My life had been safe: After high school, I went to
college. Right out of college, I got a job. Soon after, I began
dating the man who would become my husband. This is not the
high drama of which memoirs are made. Not yet 30, Liz
already had a life story that kept listeners rapt even when
told in third-person snippets. Armed with her tales of johns
and beepers and spoons, I was more interesting. My career
wasnít going as I hoped, but now, with her stories, I could
finally write a book. I put the idea to her.
Oh god, I thought, Iím becoming a word pimp, exploiting the
life of a friends for my own gain. Of course, if she said, "no
book," then there would be none. But I like the idea enough to
know Iíd have a hard time letting it go. I tried to give myself
an out: Hadnít her secrets become part of my life when she
decided to tell them to me? Wasnít that phone call now part of
my lifeís narrative?
To my great relief, Liz wasnít appalled by my suggestion that
we do a book together. But raising that possibility changed
how she talked about her former line of work. Early on, it
seemed, she had wanted to make light of her experience, to
show that it hadnít scarred her. She needed to prove that she
was okay, and I needed to believe she was; we achieved that
by laughing about it.
"If you were to write about it, it has to be real," she said. "I
donít want my life to be Pretty Women, where itís cute and
easy and thereís nothing dirty about it. Itís really ugly, Al. You
have no idea how ugly it is. It was disgusting and exhausting
having a double life."
The stories I hadnít heard before flowed forth: The elaborate
constructs of lies told to roommates, boyfriends, to family.
The truth about how, and even though she made good money,
she never got ahead financially. The cash earned in her secret
life seemed nonnegotiable in the legitimate world. "You have
all this money, but you canít think about the real life where
the rent needs to be paid, so you buy more working clothes."
She told me about the last call she was to go out on, how her
beeper went off and she started getting dressed. "I could
smell the last few guys on my stalkings as I fixed them to the
garters. It was just so gross, I pulled them off and then threw
away my beeper."
For the first time, I had a glint of understanding that Liz had
seen and felt things that I am fortunate not to fully
comprehend--things I had no right to speak of as if I were on
CONFESSING MY SECRET
Once they have sated their curiosity, people sometimes ask
about me. Did knowing this about Liz change our relationship?
No, her acts of prostitution hadnít altered our friendship--but
my talking about them had.
What changed was this: Now I was keeping a secret from Liz. I
had told her my book idea, but never confessed to sharing her
story with so many people. I had always protected her identity
by calling her "this friend of mine" or "just this girl I knew
from home." But that didnít excuse my behavior. After all, she
had been brave enough to be honest with me. Why had she
trusted me with her secret? I asked during a recent visit.
"Because otherwise the friendship would be false," she said.
"Like, you think you know me, but you donít."
Thatís just how I felt: You think you know me, but you donít
know that Iím a tattletale, that I value a good anecdote over
your bad reality. So I confessed and apologized. "Are you
monumentally angry that I told all these people?" I asked.
"Not really," she said. But without missing a beat, she added a
comment that forced me to reevaluate my legacy of blab:
"They probably thought you were talking about yourself."
# # #