I started thinking about making fast money by escorting. Why not? Money was tight, rent needed to be paid, and I needed options. Besides, Jason had done it, and yeah, he looked like an in-demand beauty: smoldering eyes, nice lips (for a white boy), an inoffensive nose, and even that cute little butt-chin, but I was no slouch. I was brown-skinned, skinnier, taller, had a mop of cute, curly hair, and a good smile. Jason did not have a good smile; he didn’t even have a decent smile, which is why he never smiled in pictures. Jason was a pouter, and it delighted me to think he pouted because he knew about his weird smile.
For months I had been making below minimum wage, working the door at Boots & Saddle on Christopher Street. The job was mostly me smoking on a stool outside and carding latecomers. The recommendation of my new drag queen friend, Estrella, landed me the job. Estrella’s years of experience gave her sway in the scene, and she similarly ushered in my friend, Kelsi Glamour, as a minor act.
With Estrella’s help, Kelsi worked the bar’s larger, rowdier crowds. Estrella told Kelsi that she needed to develop a better act to help her connect with her characteristically apathetic audience, and under Estrella’s tutelage, Kelsi became more playful with the crowd during her numbers. There was a bit the crowd loved that became Kelsi’s signature: while lip-syncing to Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Hello, Dolly!” she would greet each inanimate dollar with a “Hello!” while ignoring the tipper. “Hello, Harry!” Kelsi would mouth to one dollar as she snatched it from a hand. “Hello, Mary!” she’d mouth to another. It worked. Anyone who saw Kelsi talked about that number.
What was really funny, or tragic, if you looked at it a certain way, was that the entire “Hello, Dolly!” bit once belonged to Estrella. Estrella didn’t have much in common with her birth mother except for music, Ella Fitzgerald’s, in particular, so she developed the bit as a way to pay tribute to them both. But it didn’t play well with the audiences in the ‘70s, who expected a black queen like Estrella to perform only disco hits. So, Estrella dropped the tribute to her mother, privately holding on to the idea for years, before finally burying the kernel of it inside Kelsi Glamour. Estrella did all this—she told me while blowing smoke in my face—because she wanted to conduct a little experiment. She wanted to find out if her idea was a bad idea in and of itself, or if it was a good idea that people didn’t like simply because of who she was. Through sweet, Salvadorian Kelsi, whose drag was very white-girl, Estrella proved that her idea was a good one, and in doing so, exposed the world for what it truly was: a rotten, hateful place. Every time Estrella tells that story, she ends it with an earthy smoker’s laugh.
I laughed with her the last time she told me that story, and it was only after the laughter had subsided that I worked up the courage to test out my idea. So, I told Estrella I wanted to try hooking for extra money. She shook her head at me, plucked one of my cigarettes, and lit it in her mouth.
“Baby,” she croaked, “good for you. About time you start your own business. You know that’s how I got these, right?” Estrella pushed her drooping breasts together towards the middle of her chest and let them drop.
“I thought you’d talk me out of it.”
“I would be a grand hypocrite if I did . . . but . . . don’t start your business here.”
“Absolutely, ma’am, I’m not running shop here. I don’t shit where I eat.”
“That’s fine, just take your shittin’ and eatin’ to the Meatpacking District along with the rest of the girls, and make sure you get your money up front.”
“Good idea. Can I get paid for tonight up front?” I said, and Estrella let out a howl.
I respected her opinion. You couldn’t look like a black Harvey Fierstein in drag, live to be in your sixties, and not have learned a thing or two about surviving.
When Estrella had to go back onstage, Kelsi Glamour came out to see me, and I dutifully handed her a cig. All the girls and I pooled our money together to buy cigarettes (‘cept for Estrella, who said her payment was securing the gig) and typically burned through three packs a night.
I told Kelsi I wanted to escort, like Jason did, making sure to call it escorting and not hooking because she was the more sensitive type.
“Jason’s not an escort. He’s a club promoter,” Kelsi said.
“What do you think ‘club promoter’ means?”
“Hmm, I guess you do learn something new every day.”
“I wouldn’t do it full-time, just every once in a while. Gotta make some extra cash. Estrella gave me her blessing.”
“She would. It’s how she got those tits.”
“Listen, we all fuck around, post on websites—the way I see it—asking for money every once in a while isn’t so different.”
Kelsi shook her head, rolled her big expressive eyes, causing strands of her wig to get caught in her eyelids.
“I thought you were looking for a steady job, Jo. What happened to that?”
“I dunno. Job market’s not hiring high-school-dropouts-turned-doormen for drag shows.”
“Oh Christ,” she said, putting out her cig and walking back into the bar. I wasn’t sure why she always took on this posture, but some small part of me liked disappointing her.
One “yes” and one “no,” but I was the tie-breaker vote, and I voted yes, so I hopped on my computer and built an online profile that indirectly stated I was open to accepting money for sex. I first scoured existing profiles for research, blatantly copying the obvious hooker ads. The best headlines cleverly added a money sign to phrases like: “you ho$t” or “up for $ex.”
The next part of my plan involved attaching lurid photos of myself, but finding the correct angles was a full night’s work. I threw myself into pretzel shapes and took pictures with an old digital camera, but the lighting in my room was all wrong, so I turned the ceiling light off, turned on a lamp instead, and went the tasteful boudoir route. Turns out that taking the best picture of your asshole doesn’t require the precision of an anatomy book, all I had to do was lie on my stomach, raise my ass—snap—and let the cheeks do the majority of the enticement.
The title and pictures were a breeze compared to coming up with the text description. Describing myself in order to be sold felt impossible. I thought of myself as complex, but complex was the enemy here. I had to be simple. I had to be: Latino, twinky, smooth. The words felt gross to type.
I had expected only a few messages in my inbox, but I was surprised to open a few replies over the next several days from men who weren’t too old or too bad-looking. But their messages were curt and off-putting—all demands and appointments. I was still somehow thinking of this as dating.
“Meet me at this-and-this cafe at four o’clock” or “this-and-this diner at ten o’clock.”
I immediately blocked them all, following an impulse that told me I wasn’t going to cater to demands, even if I was trying to start a business. But another message arrived, days later, from a headless torso, muscular and flexing. Attractive, I thought. His message was intriguing in its earnestness.
“Roommate out of town. I am looking, please respond if you’re still available!”
It was so earnest in fact that it made me feel powerful, which compelled me to answer.
“You know I charge, right?”
“Yes, that’s fine. I’ll pay.”
Feeling bold, like I was getting away with something, I laid out a price.
“One hundred and fifty dollars.”
“I have the money, sexy.”
It was all too easy. I thought I was missing something, maybe a background check, credit check? Why was I apprehensive? I had already done something like this before. When I first moved to New York, I slept with a boy in exchange for a bed, but even that transaction felt—even on the surface—more personal than this.
Still, the headless torso told me where it lived, and I said I’d be right over.
It was a night so hot all of New York’s air conditioners ran on full blast, causing an artificial mist to rain down on the steaming city sidewalks. Ordinarily, this little rain would feel gross, but tonight, it felt like a cooling distraction. The closer I got to his place, the more my heart beat in my chest. The building was your common city cave: bad lighting, stacked mailboxes in the front hallway, narrow stairs, no elevator, an ancient dungeon haunted by the ghosts of Irish immigrants. I bounded up three flights of stairs and reached the headless torso’s apartment. The front door was already open.
“Come in,” a voice said from inside.
I entered. The shades were closed, but I could still see enough to follow a glowing blue light down a hallway towards the voice and the hum of an old air conditioner. Seated over a computer monitor was the body I had talked to online, curved spine, bare feet, clad in nothing but a pair of tighty-whities—a conventionally attractive male body made unattractive by its contortions. He looked to be twenty-something. Atop the body was a mop of long straight black hair, and when he turned its head, I saw a face with high cheekbones wrapped in taut skin. There was something wrong with his eye, but I wasn’t sure what it was. It was a little swollen, red, as if the man had popped a vessel. I moved to his side, dropped my bag on the floor, and boldly put my hand on his shoulder.
“Hi, what are you looking at?” I asked.
“I made some drawings. Want to see?”
He turned his computer monitor towards me. There was a crude drawing of a satyr on his screen. It wasn’t too bad, a little odd. I lied and said it was cool. The man clicked on an arrow, and another picture popped up, a centaur drawn in the same style, except the bottom half was a full goat, goat head and all.
“Wow!” I exhaled. The centaur seemed to me like it was moving slightly. When the man clicked again, another drawing appeared: the upper half was that of a man, and the lower half was a whole wolf. The man part was flexing a bicep, and the wolf part, below his waist, stood, on all four of its legs, ready to pounce. The creatures stood in a crudely drawn forest, which, on closer inspection, seemed to be made entirely out of penis-shaped leaves. The series of pictures he clicked through became more ludicrous and obscene, like a parade of scowling creatures from the island of Dr. Moreau.
“You like it?” he asked, turning to look at me.
“Sure,” I replied, realizing that I was on the clock, that he was my client, and that I had to get used to lying. I moved away from him, through the nearly empty living room, and settled on a colossal, fluffy cushion lying on the ground. I undid my pants, flung them to the side, and lay face-up, running a tantalizing finger on top of my bulging underwear. The man understood. He seemed to follow an animal instinct which compelled him to crawl over to me on all fours, and began to lick my legs and underwear. He placed one hand on my butt, firmly gripping it. Feeling the weight of my body go numb, I sunk into the colossal cushion.
The man was getting rough with his finger, I moved it away from my butt, and redirected it to remove my underwear. Then, I implored him to suck it. He did—thankfully—and I lay there concentrating on the monotonous hum of the air conditioner. I glanced to my left and caught both of our bodies reflected within a large gothic mirror.
An impish thought crossed my mind as I watched myself: could I get away with cumming and charge that as sex? I thought I’d try. I pulled his hair up and down quickly, closed my eyes, and concentrated, but he must have guessed at what I was up to, because he interrupted me with sweat on his brow, and asked if he could fuck me.
What followed was a negotiation, mostly between myself and I.
“Hmm,” I said out loud, like one would say when making a show out of comparing the quality of two mangos. Penetration, but for how long? And how deep? Would I let him cum inside me? With or without a condom? Thinking about the particulars made the whole thing more unsexy by the second. I had a hard time concentrating with the man’s red eye and our tangled bodies in the mirror. Would I even be able to get off? Perhaps if I closed my eyes and floated away.
“Maybe a little,” I said. I needed to be good at this. To be good at something.
The man flipped me over, and I lay on the pillow, eyes closed, thinking of all the rooms I’d been in and seen, big or small, new or old, warm or haunted. I felt the man’s knees bite into the back of my sprawled legs. I tried to think of it like a massage, tried to think of the noise I would make that would give him his money’s worth. But the room was now dark and quiet, it felt like an altar, and the cushion like a colossal slab. The computer monitor flickered an eerie light that scanned across everything, and the thrum of the air conditioner dulled my senses.
I felt him plunge at my insides, and wincing, I turned my head and saw myself in the mirror. My body was motionless, but my eyes were open wide. My skin was the color of a pale blue moon, and my limbs sagged to the floor like old tree branches. The force of the man’s thrusts made my head lurch forward and back, and it was then that I realized that I was staring at a vision of my corpse.
“I think I’m good!” I exclaimed, suddenly shooting up and away from the cushion, the man, and his erection. It was like waking up from a bad operation, my whole body screamed. It was dark and I couldn’t find my clothes.
“What do you mean? I pay,” he said, as he followed me around the cushion.
Suddenly the cushion didn’t seem large enough. The man gathered speed and followed me as I moved around, looking for my clothes. I caught a flash of the man’s red eye and balled fist. Why was it so red? We both kept moving, faster and faster around the room, around each other. I grabbed at the walls, nearly tipping over in the circling darkness. I leapt up and over the cushion, sprinted through the hallway, through the blue light, which had first drawn me in, which now seemed to be chasing me, out the door. Behind me were curses, screaming, stampeding. The door slammed shut behind me.
Outside I was naked, cupping my privates with my hands.
I knocked hard, “Wait, I need my clothes!”
The door opened, and through the crack between the frame and the handle, I could see a pair of eyes—one bloodshot—looking at me as if they pitied me. Their change from violent to meek unnerved me. In the building’s hallway light, my former client looked like any other New Yorker: a disappointed, lonely foreigner. He pushed my clothes through the doorway, and I put them on as I ran out into the night, back home into bed.
I was rattled, but didn’t tell Bobby Lee about what happened to me last night because I didn’t have the words to explain it. Besides, Bobby Lee had a constitution about him that nothing was his business, a crusty sort of glaze that some New Yorkers develop with time. He didn’t ask if anything was wrong, we just ate our pasta in peace.
“You ready to get out of here?” Bobby Lee said.
“Okay, you get up first, you look more suspicious than me, then I’ll follow.”
I walked right out of the restaurant, lit a cigarette, then felt the familiar rush of anxiety and guilt from skipping out on a bill. Bobby Lee appeared, rounding the corner with his hands in his pockets and a stern, cool look on his face.
“Let’s go,” he said, eyes darting left and right, then back again. He wore a dress shirt and tie, having come straight from his realtor gig, but in this context, it was a fiendish disguise. I was envious of Bobby Lee’s life, his money, how easily he floated through all the bullshit in New York. If I stuck close enough to him, maybe I could learn enough about this city to move through it like a high-roller. I wanted to know how Bobby Lee survived in New York, but I didn’t want to ask. Asking the question would expose me as a clueless, naive kid.
I wanted to take from the city like Bobby Lee took from the city, but I had to start small. We returned to his place, drank vodka, called up friends to make plans for the night. Once outside, I spied a toppled wheelchair on the curb of a street corner. Here was my chance to take something from the city.
“I want that,” I announced to Bobby Lee, who promptly grabbed the handles and flipped it. Once the chair was right-side up, it looked remarkably new, and I hesitated to sit in it, wondering whether it belonged to someone.
“I’ll push you,” Bobby Lee said, with a glint of mania in his eyes.
He pushed me for blocks, past the bright lights of Times Square, past Midtown bar hoppers and theater-goers who looked concerned as Bobby Lee continued onwards with me in tow, towards the onslaught of street traffic. I screamed in delight, a needed, temporary rush.
Bobby Lee pushed me right up to the club, up to Alex, who was already waiting in line.
“If anyone asks if I’m with either of you, I’ll deny it,” Alex jabbed.
“Guess no one here appreciates a miracle,” I replied, as I rose from the wheelchair.
I kicked the chair to the street curb, where it flipped over and hit the pavement in a heap of gleaming metal, breaking apart as it settled. The people in line gasped. Alex squeezed my arm.
“Jo, Everything okay?”
“Fine. We just got to drinking early is all,” I said.
Inside the club, we met up with Luis, Bobby Lee’s old-fling-turned-buddy, who greeted us with a generous flurry of air kisses. They got to talking, which meant Alex got to corner me with an interrogation.
“You didn’t do it, did you?”
“What do you think?”
“I think when given the opportunity to do something reckless, you’ll do it.”
“Don’t be such a downer.”
Alex wanted to know everything, but I didn’t want to live it again. I told him not to worry. I just wanted us to go into the club and have fun, but to my dismay, the music was all wrong and the crowd was dull. Alex didn’t care about all that stuff, he danced with feeling, mouthed the words to songs he knew, playfully shouted compliments to strangers.
Bobby Lee and I needed a very specific kind of energetic crowd to have fun. So, Bobby Lee quickly grew bored. He did what he normally did when he was bored: steal.
“Jo, order a drink, but do it from down the bar,” he told me.
I did as instructed and ordered a Jack and Coke. I watched Bobby Lee sneak around and under the bar when the bartender wasn’t looking and nab two whole bottles of mid-grade rum. He had some nerve. I’m not sure what the bar had done to deserve this petty theft, but I suspected that, in Bobby Lee’s head, this was payback for a dull night out.
We left at midnight, starving, and ducked into a McDonald’s, where we ordered burgers, fries, and soda. Bobby Lee opened the bottle of rum under the table and dunked some in our drinks.
“Cheers to this shit-show.” Bobby Lee raised his cup, and we clinked, plastic on plastic. The drinks and the company dulled my anxiety. I didn’t think quite so much about the forking pain in my ass or the fever-vision of my corpse. I was warm and toasty now, comfortable under the seedy fluorescent lights of McDonald’s.
“I gotta question,” Luis said, and I was surprised at his thick, Puerto Rican drawl. I had never talked to him in a quiet setting. “How do you live like you live, man? Does it ever get easier living in the city?”
The question was directed at Bobby Lee. Alex and I both fell silent and patiently waited for Bobby Lee’s answer.
“Yeah, it gets easier. Drinking helps. Xanax helps. I’ve sometimes gone months without paying rent, so having a landlord that likes you helps. These burgers help.” Bobby Lee was slurring his words. He took a few more bites of his food, then offered some more insight, “Don’t let them see you panic.”
I was expecting more, but he stopped short.
“That’s it? I don’t get it. You telling us how to live or how to steal?”
“In New York, it’s the same thing,” Bobby Lee hiccupped.
“Well . . . cheers to some Bobby Lee wisdom,” Alex said.
We drank and ate until all we had left were crumbs. Alex and Luis left briefly to use the bathroom, and it was then that Bobby Lee took out two medicine bottles. He shook out two pills from each bottle onto the table and explained which one was Xanax and which was Klonopin.
“What’s this for?” I said.
“It’s for you. You’re acting weird. I think you need it.”
Even this approximation of kindness felt like a hug.
“Would it be fine if I stayed at your place?” I asked Alex on the train to Queens.
I’d stayed with Alex before, helping him turn into her, into Kelsi. I thought of Alex’s room like a tiny womb, with its inviting, cerulean walls, and soft fabrics that hung everywhere, brushing up against your skin.
“Sure, but we’ll have to be quiet, my roomie is probably sleeping.”
We got off the train and tiptoed through the living room, two quiet mice, and into his bedroom. I nestled into a familiar groove in the carpet, a warm furry space I frequently occupied at the side of a large bunk bed. Alex didn’t own much else that wasn’t related to drag: a dresser, a rug, a large desktop computer that hummed like a plane at rest, and an air conditioner that occasionally banged loose its interior metal parts. Alex had covered the sides of the air conditioner with a trash bag, so it looked like it had two black lungs.
I avoided catching my reflection in his mirror, and sat there, quiet.
“Everything alright with you?” Alex asked as he waited for his computer to turn on.
“Will be in a second,” I said, and popped Bobby Lee’s pills into my mouth.
“Jo, you know, if you need money, you can always try asking.”
“Leeching isn’t my style. Thanks anyway.”
“How much trouble are you in?”
“Just getting used to overdraft fees. But the truth is . . . I can’t end up on the streets again.”
“You’ve got a bed as long as we all got beds. You know that.”
“Mmm . . . ” I said, and let Alex’s sentiment sit between us.
Outside, people were walking. Their legs extended in and out of the frame of Alex’s lone window, shoes hitting the pavement. I felt I could watch them for hours, everyone moving. Eventually, the room grew dim, but the lights were still on—the pills must have kicked in. God knows what they were doing to my insides.
“I wanted to show you something. Look,” Alex said, turning the monitor towards me. For a second, I swore I saw dark creatures on his screen—half-men, half-monsters—but when I blinked, I found I was looking at a music video: “The Tide That Left and Never Came Back” by The Veils. Alex knew that I loved to share music. This act felt like a minor blessing.
“You know, things could be worse,” I told Alex.
Alex simply nodded, letting my sentiment sit between us.
K. Joffré is a gay Guatemalan-American writer happily married in New York City. He has essays published in Slate and fiction published in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Cosmonauts Avenue, OPOSSUM and elsewhere. He hosts a podcast called “Writing Is Annoying” and is on the hunt for an agent. You can find him on twitter @kjoffre_