October, 1999
 

    My Friend, the Call Girl

        She used her body to make ends meet,
    I used her story to be the life of the party

            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.

                                                        "Wow."

                                                        I think thatís what first came out of my mouth. Then, "Are you
                                                        okay?"

                                                        "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
                                                        sessions.

                                                        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
                                                        friends.

                                                        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
                                                        authority.

                                                        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."

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