By far my most successful ad was Marianne Dashwood. It was on Backpage, which looks like a craigslist knockoff, but only the escort section has any activity. You can get just about anything for any price, including the girl from Taken, or so hysterical articles proclaim. Most of the headlines are written in a mutating escalation of caps lock and symbols, so lowercase letters stand out graphically, an easy class indicator. I’m sure it will be shut down in a few years, at which point a visually identical html site will be thrown up, and a different entrepreneur will make a few hundred million dollars. Or perhaps all Backpage’s punters will sigh deeply and never pay for sex again, take up stamp collecting or model trains.
Marianne Dashwood proclaimed herself to be nerdy and geeky, slim and tall and blue-eyed. Backpage allows a very short descriptive paragraph, so one thinks in buzzwords, in social codes. Were there any literate men who would be interested in lil ol’ her? The photos were taken from the back. Rate was not included, which meant that each time it posted I had a wall of emails to reply to, most of which responded to the “donation” amount (very slightly more than average, and still less than most women on the closest other advertising site) with shocked hostility and stern talkings to. Charging that much was an outrage. Marianne was a real whore asking that much, a money-hungry filthy prostitute, but one that would never make any money in exchange for sex, because she was too expensive. It was conjectured that she thought she was better than a disgusting cumdumpster, which she wasn’t, and that she was riddled with disease, or would be, once she lowered her rates to acceptable levels. Some went with a light at the end of the tunnel, pointing out that if she charged half as much she would be sure to get twice as much business. Lowering her rates was only logical! Backpage has a lot of men with MBAs from Hooker U. They want to help.
At least one man would always ask Marianne out. A lonely girl like her needed someone who truly cared about her as a person. They generally provided no information about themselves, but knew there was a deep connection, one that could hardly be explained, and that she would feel the same. They wanted the first date to be at their apartment, and more than once mentioned music, candlelight, taking it slow, which they knew were sadly lacking in her life. When Marianne rejected their offers, they seemed genuinely startled. They warned her that money wasn’t everything, that she would see the error of her ways, that when she was all alone she would be sorry she had turned a nice guy down.
My cut-and-paste response to all of this was that I had slipped on a banana peel and fallen on both my phone and my computer. I must have accidentally taken multiple pictures of my ass and uploaded them and my email address to a popular escort website. I was dismayed to have made such a mistake.
Kyle responded in September. I wrote back with the rates and my standard screening question, “What was the last book you loved, and why?” He replied that he did not have enough money, but answered the question, and asked a couple others. I answered, and correspondence continued. He was a rambler, a literate and funny one, and I enjoyed the interchange. One thing about sex work is that so MANY men are paying for it. You are bound to like some of them. Another is that the world-weary whore is hard to find. I am not sick of people. I don’t think I could ever be sick of people, and I’m certainly not sick of the weird ones. My job is to listen as people try to explain themselves. That might get hard but it rarely gets boring.
I recommended that Kyle check out a particular rare books shop to get a present for his boss. He asked if Sense and Sensibility was my favorite novel. I said I wasn’t a huge Austen fan but that her books were ostensibly about love and really about money. That afternoon he said that he had decided to pull the cash together. He was my last appointment of the day.
When he showed up I was disappointed because he was homely. Not ugly, just slumped and unkempt, like Michael Cera but not young and with that vaguely unclean look common to men with master’s degrees. I hadn’t thought he was going to be Antonio fucking Banderas but my poker face isn’t great and I had affection for him, didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Fortunately he pulled from his backpack a variety of boutique high-alcohol beers, and after two of those was inobservant. We talked for a while and tried to do the sex but he wasn’t up to it, which he seemed to think I found disappointing. He drunkenly apologized. As you might imagine I did not care. He insisted that I did and that he was sorry, which was the first time he had said anything stupid. I broke out the Americone Dream to change the mood. He had never tried it. WTF?! It’s the best flavor by far. He got in the shower with his beer, constructing out loud a masculine failings fable, which was cool and all but I wanted to go eat. I thought I had seen the last of him when he clinked off down the stairs with his backpack, after giving me a first edition of a novel I had never heard of.
He wrote back two weeks later and apologized again. I tried to diplomatically explain that I didn’t get into sex work for the sex. He said that he had a lot of highly educated friends who wouldn’t have thought of the Austen thing. The third thing about sex work is that people badly want to tell you how stupid they thought you would be based on terrible stereotypes, how remarkable it is that you aren’t, and how proud you must be of not being an utter moron. They assure you that they can validate all of this: They are from the real world, they have seen movies, and they know about moron prostitutes. Further gadzooks that you ever did anything else, that you have a family you love, and that you have any friends. It’s a little like being a fifth-grade teacher: The role is assumed to define the person to such a degree that discovery of an ordinary life is startling. Also true is that people are thrilled to wax so open-minded, and they want you to share in their joy.
We volleyed for a while, slow email tennis. A month or so later he clued me in to the fact that there was a thread about my legitimacy on one of the review boards. I am not in line for the Spanish throne, so the terminology is strange. The question is whether I am cop or a scammer or vaguely defined marriage necromancer. It’s always a pudgy nobody who’s convinced he’ll be the target of a hi-tech blackmail gang. I’ve had men dash through all the rooms, pull the shower curtains, case the windows. No one cares about your Five-Forty-Eight paranoia and paltry Roth IRA, assholes.
There was nothing I could do about the thread, but I was grateful for the information. Kyle then confessed that he had done an exhaustive Internet search of everything he knew about me, and had even queried his university’s database, which could get him fired. There had been a tiny piece of linkable info, and he now knew that I had lived in Crown Heights in 2008. Nothing could be traced back to my full name. This was crossing over into weirdo territory, and we both knew it. He apologized again. I reassured him that it was fine.
I am both very naive and not naive at all. I conduct my day-to-day as if creepy, unhappy men don’t fixate on women they can sleep with but can’t satisfactorily know, as if—especially at the lower income brackets—the limited access and financial bite doesn’t make them angry, as if lust doesn’t bifurcate into resentment and a consuming hunger for contact, because it’s better for my mental health and for business for me to greet the world with open arms. I know the truth though. I have for years. Any time a man volunteers that he spooked me I make him a friend. I need to know what’s out there, what someone can find. I need to be able to take crazy’s pulse. This has served me well in the past. I told Kyle thanks, that I appreciated it. We made plans to get a beer later in the week.
For a couple months we hung out occasionally. A drink here and there. We took in the Math Museum. We went running in the park exactly once and he tore something major in his knee. He was in a semi-open eight-year relationship. I can’t remember what was wrong with it, probably nothing. He never got pushy and I never stayed too long. He had been heavily involved with two sex workers before, one who liked him more than he liked her and one the other way around. There had been some money malfeasance and a couple phone calls to the girlfriend. Both had been, according to him, bright, well-travelled women. I wanted the details, but I wasn’t going to be number three, and the milquetoast flattery didn’t improve traction. I was not interested and had a lot going on. I said so in those words. That, plus no physical contact, would keep things on the up and up, I assumed.
I had extra tickets to an art event in Queens one weekend, extra enough to where I invited Kyle. He said he might have to bring his girlfriend. I said fine. He stammered about it. I rode over that and said I looked forward to meeting her. Later my boyfriend said he would come so I said, lovely, we will be four.
Kyle did not react well. He cancelled. I pointed out that there was a symmetry to two couples and that I had made it very clear I wasn’t interested in him but that I could be explicit and in writing a second time if need be. What followed was a couple days of max-word-count texts about how he deserved love and sex and eating pizza naked in bed and watching movies all night and laughing and he didn’t understand why I wasn’t giving it a chance and why was I trying to hurt him this way and that my body was right for him, it was RIGHT. He needed me to understand. I didn’t respond. I got these texts while I was drinking Manhattans with my boyfriend, when I got off the train in Harlem to go hiking with a friend, while I got dressed after a shower. It was a temporary psycho soundtrack to my life, a deranged earworm just for me. Four days in, I was asked to have coffee and discuss it. When I said no to that, I was told that it wasn’t OK to fuck with people’s feelings like this, that I was callous and hurtful and abused my position.
I rode my bike home in the dark along Bleecker Street and glanced down at my phone. To be obsessed about is to be deeply unknown, to be right in front of someone and invisible. I felt pity, and anger, and fear.