After a breakup and a subsequent move alone to Chicago, I paid for an erotic massage. It was an alternative to hooking up at the end of an inevitably lukewarm first or second date or jumping into a new relationship just to ease my loneliness.
I got the idea from the movie Living Out Loud with Holly Hunter. The film had stuck with me since I first watched it years ago. While Hunter’s character, Judith, is going through a divorce, she pays for a handsome man to come to her apartment, set up a table, and strip to his boxer briefs. As he starts to massage her lower back, he tells her she can touch him too. For Judith, the massage is an act of autonomy. She takes control of her physical needs without the availability of a consistent partner, and I thought her solution might work for me as well.
Soon after my breakup, I started researching escorts in Chicago. A Russian immigrant named Viktor had good reviews dating back five years. His listing, written in poor English, included what I was looking for: a certified massage therapist offering erotic massages. Part of his ad read, “I’m very gentle easy going and carrying person… I’M VERY DISCREET WELL EDUCATED MEN, EXTREMELY CLEAN.”
I bookmarked two of Viktor’s listings and used images of him often while I was masturbating. The fantasies I conjured up were telling. Sometimes imagining his touch was enough to bring me to climax. At other times, I created scenarios that transcended a transaction—Viktor choosing to sleep with me out of mutual attraction instead of obligation or even the two of us dating. I should’ve known better, but I thought that whatever happened in real life would simply overwrite my fantasies.
I saved Viktor as a last resort. He would be my secret weapon if things got bad, meaning: when the loneliness became intolerable. He was like the energy bar I carried with me on long day hikes. If I got lost, I knew I wouldn’t starve.
Chasing intimacy can feel cheap—and yet intimacy we pay for can be meaningful. I find traditional therapy as awkward as sex, exposing my emotional self like I expose my body. Sometimes, in fact, it’s easier to be physically naked than bare the flesh of pain or love.
I finally felt comfortable crying in front of my therapist the last time I saw him before moving away. My tears were evidence I was going to miss him; they were a gift to him. In past sessions, when my voice would break and my eyes glaze, I’d swallow hard and move to a sensible place in my mind, laying a logical lid on my boiling emotions. My voice would take on a classroom quality as I offered theories about my life instead of feeling it. At some point, my therapist, Paul, started asking me to “stay in the soft spot” and let it show. I grew accustomed to watching his bushy eyebrows furrow and his sharp kind eyes looking at me in such a way that I felt known and safe, but also embarrassed.
“I see your sadness,” he’d said the first time he asked me to stay with my feelings, and I felt like I’d laid my dirty underwear on his dining room table. Why does showing my grief feel dirty or shameful? Perhaps it has something to do with how I felt as a kid about my mother’s depression and my confusion about how to process her sobs—the sound would echo, inescapable, through our house. Perhaps it has to do with my father’s repressed depression, tears I never saw, but instead leaked out of him as anger and guilt. Or my brother’s depression settling over him in middle school, turning his quietness into brooding, his goofy quirkiness into dark thoughts he kept hidden away. Maybe I feel shame at exposing my own sadness because it still holds family secrets. I’m sure there are other reasons, unknown and not recalled, that have accumulated over the years. Shame is a tumbleweed gathering loss, fear, and failure. Its substance can be a dirty, difficult mess to untangle.
In the back of my mind, I knew that I couldn’t compartmentalize my desires—to be touched, to be known and wanted, to feel stable. But if I limited myself to acting on things that I felt in control of, or even just situations that I hadn’t daydreamed about, I’d be stuck in the same job, the same town, dateless, and I’d never eat ice cream again. Instead I acted; I left my comfortable but passionless job, moved away from Indiana, and, the day after one particularly dissatisfying first date, I called Viktor.
The phone rang, and he answered in a thick Slavic accent. I asked if he was free for a massage that night. We set a time, and I gave him my address. In the hours before our appointment, I showered, picked out an outfit that looked casual but that still made me feel attractive, and over and over ran through what I thought I might need to tell him. I want an erotic massage. Are kisses allowed? I don’t climax without my vibrator.
He texted he was here, and I ran to meet him in the lobby. He looked just like his pictures, tan and hardbodied, meaty thighs, chiseled jaw. He was in his late thirties, and his age appealed to me. It made him seem experienced and mature. He had short tight curls, which looked dated—quite a lot like a young David Hasselhoff—but I liked it.
I asked if he wanted water, dug a La Croix out of the fridge, then stared at it. “I’m really nervous.”
“Why? This is about your pleasure,” he responded.
“I want an erotic massage, and I’m not exactly sure what it entails. I’ve never paid for anything like this before.” He looked away or maybe I did. It was probably me.
“Let me just show you,” he responded.
Cash is a currency and, I argue, so are displays of affection. We pay part of our relationship dues in compliments, caresses, and exposure—letting another person see what we are feeling. Are these as intimate for everyone? I hoard mine like a miser, cautiously dispensing tears or affectionate effusions as if each were my last dime. I’ll tell you intimacies, but I have a hard time showing you. This is especially true of the words, “I love you.”
My mother can say those words easily, but I’m more like my father. I can recall him telling me he loves me only once. I was in high school. I had gone to bed and my room was dark. He stood in the doorway to tell me something. He paused for what felt like a long time, then he told me he loved me—awkwardly drawn out words ending in my name—before shutting the door. I remember that same pause as he stood over his dying father. I remember the words finally spilling out of him in a broken voice. I knew he couldn’t say the words because his father could not say the words and that discomfort expressing love is inherited.
Sometimes, when D, my boyfriend, would tell me that he loved me, I’d become self-conscious about saying it back. The words would come out of my mouth too quickly, too high pitched. My face wouldn’t look gentle or joyful, but pained or dull. I knew the words came across as flippant, indifferent, dishonest. It wasn’t just in my head—D complained about it.
“When you say you love me, it doesn’t sound like you mean it,” he once said. But I did.
I read a “Dear Abby” once where she said that it wasn’t good hospitality if the host wasn’t sacrificing anything. You’re supposed to show your guests they’re wanted and welcome by putting them first. We show people they matter by offering them moments of vulnerability, and it should cost us something. I’m hoping with this line of reasoning that my awkward “I love you” can mean more because it’s awkward, because it costs me.
Viktor was naked and kneeling on my bed. He asked me to flip onto my back, where my right hand had greater access to his body. He told me I could touch him. Ran my fingers over his abs and stroked his cock. I liked the feel of his body and how intimate it felt to touch a stranger, but something was missing. I realize now I need to know that the person I am touching is equally pleased by my touch. Sexual intimacy requires, if not affection, at least mutual desire.
I wanted to ask him to kiss my neck. I wanted to ask him if I could kiss him at all. I wanted to hear his voice. I wanted so many things, but if he’d done everything I had asked him, would it have made a difference? Even though I’d obsessed over what I wanted to say to him, in the moment I’d mostly mimicked his silence. Most of what I knew I wanted—his chest against my back, a slower buildup, more conversation—went unfulfilled because I didn’t ask for it.
Unexpectedly Viktor asked, “Do you want me to stick my dick in you?” I paused, unsure of what to say.
“I can’t afford anything more than the massage.”
The corners of his lips lifted slightly and he replied, “It’s not extra.”
So I nodded. He was here, why not try it? He got a condom out of his pants pocket, stroked himself to stay hard, and put it on. I watched him, curious but paralyzed. Normally, I’d be reaching for my partner, kissing him, preparing him to enter me. Without Viktor’s encouragement, I wasn’t comfortable encouraging him back.
He entered me and grabbed my breasts. I think he kissed my shoulder. I remember him calling me baby. He might have kissed my breast, but his lips were so light I didn’t feel them.
I remember the first time D placed a hat so that it covered my eyes, and, giggling, I crawled till I felt the edge of the bed where he grabbed my hips and pushed me back toward him. He’d let me move around, getting into new positions, before opening my legs that I’d playfully lock together. I remember the rush of trying to escape and thinking how patient he seemed, and the impact of his body knocking into mine. But I don’t remember what Viktor’s hands felt like on or inside my body.
Later, over dinner with a friend, I told her I could’ve had close to the same encounter if I took someone home from a bar. I told her that I’d wanted what was depicted in Living Out Loud—an erotic experience that was as different as going to the ballpark was to watching the game at home. She shook her head. “It’s never like it is on the screen.”
In the movie, as the masseuse starts on her lower back, Judith uses the backs of her fingers to caress his abs. The scene ends as she hesitantly dips her hand into his boxer briefs. Perhaps desire is more about expectation, a thriving of possibility, whereas intimacy lives in the fulfillment.
But I am not as convinced as my friend that art is more erotic, more existentially satisfying than real life. Sometimes, no matter what fanciful world I paint in my mind, reality sweeps across my canvas with stronger, bolder colors and subdues what’s underneath. What really happens is more sensual and often more memorable than what I wanted to have happen simply because I have lived it. I’m left wondering if I could have had some form of contentment instead of just more longing if Viktor had painted a better erotic scene and had given me my hundred bucks worth. Maybe I needed to speak my desires more confidently, or maybe he was just a shitty painter.
Bloomington was a small city, and I ran into Paul not infrequently at a restaurant or the library. I never asked him for anything—to sit with us or even how his day was going. Congeniality goes beyond good manners in this case; when he seemed truly glad to see me outside of his office, then what happened inside of it felt more real. I wasn’t just a talking head filling up sixty minutes.
Sometimes Paul would offer a small piece of his life when it related to the topic of our session. For instance, once he said his wife had pointed out to him that he was happier when he wasn’t volunteering for a crisis center. He told me this to make a point about my own predilection to say yes to too many things and then criticize my anxiety.
But when I told him I’d met someone involved in a meditation group that he led, his look turned stony. This wasn’t intimacy he’d offered me; it was a connection I’d sought out.
If being a good host requires some amount of sacrifice, then being a good guest means respecting a host’s privacy. Don’t open their closet doors. Parts of Paul’s life that he had not talked about were like closets, and I’d opened his closet door.
How different is friendship? When more parts of our lives are shared with each other, it’s more difficult to discern what’s a closet.
Viktor offered me his body, but his entire emotional world was off-limits. Perhaps one of the differences between professional and personal relationships is what piece of oneself to offer as a host—what small amount of vulnerability it takes to show you care.
I tend only to feel comfortable crying in front of people I’m sleeping with. I’ll choke up during movies, weddings, and funerals, no problem, all shared experiences that merit collective tears. But when my heart is falling down my cheeks and some piece of my own deep-seeded sadness is cracked open, I prefer to be with a person who knows me in physically intimate ways. I wonder if it’s due to the sacredness of sex, a sacramental blessing in which you pledge a certain amount of trust to each other. Or it could just be the hormones. I wouldn’t say sex absolves me of the shame I sometimes feel when I cry, but somehow sex helps keep it dormant.
During my last session, Paul said he might cry too. We stood up and hugged, and he held my hands in his, looked me in the eyes, and said, “This is what goodbye feels like and this is what love feels like.”
Paul taught me that we can attempt to separate the personal and the professional as fiercely we do church and state and still love sneaks in. Whether welcome or unbidden, love infiltrates every corner of our lives and comes to us in so many packages—sought-after love, familial love, resentment, needed love, and love that feels like a luxury.
Still, how can you love someone or something when information mostly flows in one direction? I know I was nurtured by Paul’s care, so perhaps love is sometimes gratitude—or maybe need—in disguise.
“This is what goodbye feels like.” He knew I had a hard time saying goodbye. I hung onto relationships that weren’t good for me, or I sought perfect closure when no such thing existed. He knew what drove me most strongly was the need to connect with others, and I had admitted to him that broken connections felt like failures. With his parting words, Paul reminded me that sometimes goodbyes were natural.
I said goodbye to both Paul and Viktor, but not to therapy or prostitution. After Paul came Josh—the therapist I’d find in Chicago—who tells me that every decision we make and each aspect of our personality have pros and cons. Few things are simply good or bad. I can see the truth of this in my difficulty saying goodbye.
I did not abandon the idea of therapy after my first therapist did more harm than good. A campus counselor at my Christian college, after several sessions discussing my binge eating, finally told me to start looking in a mirror and telling myself that God loved me. I was confident that believing God loved me was not my problem, so I didn’t go back. Paul was the third therapist I tried, but the first to stick.
People who fulfill specific roles in our lives might be the only tangible experiences we have of those roles. I could easily have believed that every father has difficulty expressing affection, every escort sucks at explaining his services, but I would have been wrong.
In Viktor, I was searching for a way to control my loneliness, instead I found a spark—he lit my curiosity. Could paid-for sexual intimacy be just as satisfying as therapy? Because I wanted to know, I tried three more escorts and each got successively better. Their lips were looser than Viktor’s had been—they let me see more of their emotional homes. I discovered silent erotic spaces existed after comfortable chatter.
Number four stuck like Paul had stuck. During one session, I asked him to fulfill a fantasy. He asked me to hold my arms out to my sides, palm facing up. He placed a strand of thick heavy chains in each of my hands and told me not drop them. Then, he used a flogger with wide leather strands on my breasts and my stomach, and when the pain became too much, and I cried, he stopped immediately. He put his arms around me and comforted me, and because of this, I felt safe to explore new grounds of my sexuality with him. Because of this, I learned that even without a partner, I might not be able to control my loneliness, but I can at least keep exploring. I’m certain that even when I’m paying for a service—psychotherapy or escorting—I might not find love, but I can find something there to be grateful for.