I never know what to say when I’m asked if I knew anyone who died on September 11. It’s a conflict that cuts right to the strange nature of sex work—the intimate anonymity, the intimate indifference. I could be standing in front of a client’s name on the Memorial Wall at Ground Zero and never know it, because I never learned his last name or had long since forgotten it.
I’m pretty sure Stephen died on September 11. He worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, a company located on floors 101–105 of Tower 1. Most of the 658 employees in those offices that morning died in the attacks. I was seeing Stephen two to three times a month through the outcall escort agency I worked for in New York City, and after August of 2001, I never saw him again.
I met Stephen at a bachelor party. I hated bachelor parties. I hated them because the elements that made them such a good time for the men in attendance—the randy women, the booze, the feeling of brotherhood—conspired to bring out something ugly in them: bravado.
This particular bachelor party immediately got off to a bad start. A friend of the groom called the woman I was doing the party with—a voluptuous Latina in a platinum blonde wig who went by the name Moet—“hefty,” and she freaked out, storming off to find the friend of the groom who had set up the party, demanding an apology before she would perform. The party was held inside some kind of shipping/receiving warehouse in Manhattan, and I didn’t know Moet at all. I had met her just minutes before outside the warehouse, and when she stormed off, I assumed she had left me. Standing there all by myself in a transparent slip dress and heels, I felt like carrion for a pack of hungry wolves.
“How much for a blowjob?” one man barked.
“Will you let me snort coke off your ass?” asked another.
“You and the fat one—you eat her pussy?” inquired a third.
To make matters worse, I wasn’t much of a dancer. I had tried stripping once, and hated it; I found I fit into sex work because it was much more one-on-one, much less all-eyes-on-me. Though most of the other escorts at the agency liked doing bachelor parties because of the tips and party atmosphere, I avoided them, viewing them as frat parties for grown men. The only reason I agreed to do this one was the soothing words of the phone girl: it was only a few guys, she swore. It was hastily organized, not even a real bachelor party, more of a last-minute cap on the night’s festivities. From their voices on the phone, they sounded so drunk, she doubted they would be standing up. And Moet—bachelor parties were her forte. She was a pro.
But now I was Moet-less, flanked by a group of at least ten men and counting, all of whom stood upright and alert, except for the guys sitting in the circle of foldout chairs in the center of the room. The phone girl’s assurances had obviously been a con job, tailored to placate my insecurities. The men had probably requested a white girl for the party, and I was the only one available. Though confident I could handle the situation, I felt vulnerable and extremely uncomfortable, the primary reasons I chose to avoid bachelor parties in the first place.
“Hey, I got an idea!” a man called out from behind a large desk in a corner of the room. “Let’s all play strip poker!”
“Shut up, Steve!” said a sweaty man in a suit jacket. Most of the men where clad in subtle variations of the same ensemble: pants and suit jackets that had probably appeared much nattier earlier in the evening. “Come sit on my lap, baby, and rub those titties all over me. I know you’ve got some great titties under that dress.” The sweaty man beckoned, crooking his finger in a come-hither motion in my direction.
“That’s not fair, Ray!” the man behind the desk scolded, standing up. He looked to be about fifty, with a paunchy stomach and khaki pants worn high on his waist. He took off his suit jacket and draped it on the back of his chair dramatically, a la Demi Moore in Striptease. “Why should she be the only one who takes her clothes off?” he said, jiggling his big belly and unbuttoning his shirt to an imaginary beat.
“I don’t know, Steve, maybe because she’s a stripper?” a voice in the group growled.
The man with the large belly opened a drawer of the desk and gestured towards me. “We have our company poker night here,” he said. He reached into the desk drawer and pulled out a basket filled with unopened card decks. “You know how to play?” he asked.
I shook my head no.
“I’ll show ya,” he answered with a wink, handing me an unopened deck. He lowered his voice, and I leaned in closer to hear him. “It’s been a looooong night, hon. We’re just getting back from the casino, and I’m pretty sure the groom’s puking in another room. Everyone here’s nice, just wasted. Just do your thing, hon. These,” he indicted towards the cards, “should keep the heat off of you a little bit.”
“Let’s play STRIP POKER!” he yelled out, rolling his belly and wiggling his hips as he threw the card decks to the men in all directions. “I can’t wait to see what you’re working with, Hector!”
In light of Moet’s MIA status, the man’s gesture made me feel like I had an ally, though one could never be sure in this business. As the men grumbled to themselves and dodged the flying card decks, I moved to the center of the circle of chairs, ready to start my slow, drawn-out removal of garments. There was no music, so the men’s obnoxious inquiries and demands would have to serve as my soundtrack. Suddenly, Moet burst back into the room, the groom, supported by the best man, following behind her.
“Come on now, Kenny,” the best man slurred. “You have to apologize to this lovely lady! Look at those lips! She could suck the chrome off a bumper!” He had lipstick on both sides of his face and wobbled on his feet. His fly was partially unzipped, and I could make out the tartan plaid of his boxer shorts through the opening.
“I never said anything to her, Mike, I swear,” Kenny stammered. “It was all a misunderstanding. I was asking for a Hefty bag, for the beer cans…”
“Well, she’s ready to show us all a good time, but only if you say those two magic words. Otherwise, she’s out of here, and it’s going to be all your fault. Right, Moet?”
Moet appeared to be in much better spirits upon reentering the room, and was wearing a man’s tie around her neck, its knot perfectly aligned with the ample swell of her cleavage. Her spandex minidress looked to be at least three sizes too small and barely touched the tops of her meaty thighs. She marched over to Kenny, a slight man with feminine features and large glasses that threatened to overwhelm his face, and straddled his lap.
“Do I feel heavy to you, baby?” she purred, her large posterior extending far past his knees.
“No, baby, no! You feel just right!” Kenny said, his voice going up a few octaves as his small frame was engulfed by so much Moet.
The best man looked at me. “You gonna show us a good time, too, Courtney?”
I opened my mouth to speak with my best feigned enthusiasm, but the man with the large belly cut me off.
“I was kind of hoping Courtney and I could be alone, Mike.”
Moet gyrated deeper into the lap of the man who had insulted her. The best man surveyed the room, his eyes stopping to linger on Moet. Based on her performance, he must have decided mine wouldn’t be necessary.
“Alright Steve-o, she’s yours, but you owe me. You can take her into that room in the back.”
Another thing I didn’t particularly enjoy about bachelor parties were these public negotiations of my services that didn’t involve me.
I picked up my bag from a chair and waited for the man to lead me towards the backroom, but he just stood there, looking at me impatiently.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“You’re forgetting your cards, hon. You want to learn, right?”
I looked over at Moet, in an attempt to communicate to her where I was going, but I couldn’t get her attention. She was bent over Kenny’s chair as if doing a backbend, her arms on both sides of his lap, and her breasts upside down in his face.
It was the one thing about the bachelor party the phone girl hadn’t lied about.
Moet was a pro.
Stephen and I sat in the backroom for the next hour and half playing strip poker for prudes. He didn’t want me to take off anything beyond my bra and panties. All that left me to remove was my dress and shoes. He stayed in his boxer shorts.
“Thanks,” I said, acknowledging the diversion he’d created in the other room. “But you didn’t have to do that. I’ve done plenty of bachelor parties.”
“I saw your eyes,” he said. “You looked like a deer in the headlights of life. Moet doesn’t have that look.” He ashed his cigarette into a plastic cup of beer. “I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. I can’t get off on that. My name’s Stephen, but I also have a superhero alter ego. They call me Captain Save-a-Ho.”
I laughed, even though he was calling me a ho.
All of the men at the bachelor party that night, except for the groom’s best man, whom it was mentioned he had known since childhood, worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center.
The phone girl told me that Stephen had called every night since the party to see if I was working. A few nights later, I was, and I was driven to his Brooklyn Heights Brownstone. Five years before, he told me, he had split up with his wife who was living on Long Island with their teenage daughter. We went into his bedroom, and he reached into a dresser drawer and took out a small bag of white powder.
“I got this the other night at the casino,” he said. “Bought it in the parking lot. I’m not really sure why. It’s not my thing.”
I cut a line of it on top of the table next to his bed. Its consistency was both soft and crunchy, like some kind of salt mixed with soap. I blew it behind the bed when he wasn’t looking. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was fake.
We had sex and his sweat rained down on me in salty droplets. His breathing quickly became labored.
“I wish you could have seen me in my prime, Courtney,” he said. “Wait.” He ran into another room and came back with a photo album. There were pictures of him from high school playing football, pictures from what looked to be a college frat party; it made me think of the bachelor party at the warehouse. “After your forties, hon, it’s all downhill,” he said. “But it was a great ride.”
As I was leaving, he tipped me a hundred dollars, then made an all too familiar request.
“Give me your phone number, hon,” he said. We can cut the agency right out of it.”
I’d been down that road a million times before and had learned the hard way that unless you had some kind of special line just for them, it never paid to give a client your phone number. It ended up abused, treated like a free phone-sex line or a drunken confessional. So I compromised and gave Stephen my new email address.
My mother had just bought two computers she’d seen advertised on television and gave me one as a gift. It wasn’t exactly a real computer—it was called an i-Opener, and it was similar to WebTV in that it was just the Internet, a keyboard, and a screen. Because my i-Opener had been a present from my mom, it was registered through her account, and my email address had one very small difference from hers: the number 1.
As I wrote down my email address for Stephen, I stressed the importance of remembering this digit.
“Don’t forget the 1,” I said.
“No worries, hon,” he replied.
He forgot the 1 and emailed my mom.
As a sex worker, there are three questions you are asked constantly by clients. The first one is “What’s your real name?” Clients are obsessed with this question. If they can get you to tell them your real name, it makes them feel special, elevated. The relationship is still a paid one, but now they know you just as anyone who is important to you does in your other life. Disclosing your name also negates what may be the most important veneer a sex worker has: anonymity. It’s a revelation that can be interpreted as either “She trusts me enough for me to call out to her if I see her on the street” or “She actually wants me to come up to her and say hello.” The second question clients always ask is “What were the circumstances that led you to sex work?” or, as they see it, the circumstances that led you astray, from good girl to bad. The third question is “What gets you off sexually?” This is usually phrased as “Now tell me what you like.”
I never told Stephen my real name. It was nothing against him. I had told other clients my name in the past, but because “Fiona” came across as more exotic-sounding than “Courtney,” before the movie Shrek at least, to them it sounded like even more of a stripper name, and they never believed me. So I told Stephen that Courtney was my real name, that in spite of what he may have believed as Captain Save-A-Ho, there was nothing to save me from—my private life and public life blurred together. So when Stephen emailed my mother, he addressed the email in part to Courtney.
My mother had gotten other emails meant for me after buying me the i-Opener, but nothing related to sex work. Thankfully, Stephen hadn’t written anything too revealing, just that he would like to see me again soon and had enjoyed our time together. My mother probably wouldn’t have even thought the email was meant for me if Stephen hadn’t addressed it not just to “Courtney” but to “Courtney Love.” He was being funny, but I was a big fan of hers, and my mother knew this.
In January of 2002, I was living with my mom and using her i-Opener when I came across Stephen’s email, then six months old. My exit from New York City had happened hastily the previous December when I had lost my apartment in a perfect storm of Xanax addiction and unpaid rent. Clients come and go from your life—your life and theirs mix in hour-long intervals and dollar allotments, and it occurred to me as I read Stephen’s email that I couldn’t recall seeing him after August of the previous summer.
I wrote down his email address, logged into my newly created Yahoo email account and wrote:
It’s Courtney. Sorry I didn’t get in touch sooner, but everything’s just been so crazy the last few months. I can’t imagine what it’s been like for you. The loss of life is staggering. I don’t want to say too much now, I’d rather wait for you to respond first, but I’m no longer in New York. Hopefully I’ll be back soon. Just wanted to make sure you’re okay and let you know I’m thinking about you.
Just as I was about to hit send, it occurred to me that my new email address might cause some confusion. It contained my real name, Fiona, followed by some numbers that were relevant to my life. I’d been so adamant to Stephen about Courtney being my real name that I figured it warranted some kind of passing explanation.
This is my new email address, I added. Fiona’s my real name. I was just trying to keep some distance, you know?
I did make it back to New York, and in the summer of 2002, I found myself working for the same outcall escort agency I’d been working for when I met Stephen. One night, my driver for the evening took me to meet a friend of his, another driver for the agency, between calls. I recognized the girl his friend was driving for the night immediately: the big breasts, the wide, shapely hips. The only thing different about her was the sable color of her wig. It was Moet.
“I remember you,” she said, getting out of the car to smoke a cigarette and empty the sand from her shoes. Her driver had just picked her up from a call she had done at the beach. “We did that bachelor party together, and you ditched me.”
“I didn’t ditch you!” I said defensively. I had experienced the brunt end of other girls’ reactions to imagined crimes in the past.
“Relax, mami,” she said. “You remembered where those guys worked, didn’t you? That company, in the Towers? What’s your name again, mami?”
“People can say whatever they want about us and what we do, Courtney, but those men that night, they didn’t have much time left. And maybe I’m crazy for even thinking like this, but that night I know I showed them a good time, and they went home happy. Do you know what I mean, mami? I gave them my all that night, and I feel good about that. ”
Rumpus original art by Devon Kelley-Yurdin.