I remember clearly the first time my best friend Chelsea and I decided to play at prostitution.
I say play because even though we were most definitely trading sex for goods and worldly services, that’s what it felt like, play. Almost anything can feel like play when done amongst friends, drunken orgies of unprotected sex, intravenous drug use, even a violent criminal act like a pushing a hippy from a moving Volkswagen bus to steal his shrooms. It’s the transformative power of the laugh track of friendship; it’s also the soundtrack to a sort of shared madness.
We kept our client list small. It consisted of only one very preferred customer, our good friend, Chris, whom both of us had already had sex with on numerous occasions anyway. So, really, it just seemed like mixing things up a bit, taking something that was normal and natural and sticking a price tag on it. Our first foray into prostitution was very much like the buying and selling of pet rocks.
Surprisingly, Chris wasn’t resistant to the idea at all; on the contrary, it excited him. It was obvious he got off on the sleaziness of the concept as much as I did. The world of vice and sexual debauchery had always held an attraction for me. At seventeen, I viewed it as this parallel universe where anything went, free of the glaring lights of society’s judgment. I just lacked an in.
Once the plan was in place, Chris had a hard time controlling his anticipation, covertly grabbing my ass as we passed each other in the hallway or tonguing the V between his pointer and middle finger when our eyes met on the lunch line. We’d been fucking on and off for years, but this unexpected dash of quid pro quo was adding a spicy new ingredient to our bromidic old recipe. Maybe it was because Chris was incredibly good-looking and willing females just threw themselves at him. The idea that someone was actually saying if you want it, you have to pay for it, turned him on.
The currency in exchange for the fucking would be drugs. Once our end of the deal was satiated, Chris would drive Chelsea and me a half hour to East Haven and buy us heroin, which we had started doing about six months earlier. I was a high school senior and Chelsea was a sixteen year old correspondence-schooled junior. Neither of us had jobs and neither of us drove, so this arrangement with Chris would gratify all that we desired but lacked in one fell swoop.
Arriving at my house after school, I told Chris to take off all his clothes and wait for me in my bedroom. I went into my sister’s room and rifled through her underwear drawer, grabbing the short baby blue negligee she always wore after bathing. Figuring myself properly garbed, I returned to the bedroom where Chris was sitting on the edge of the bed in his boxer shorts. He acknowledged my return with a nervous laugh.
“Put the money on the bedside table Big Boy,” I said lifting his legs onto the mattress and pushing his body down onto the bed with my own. I then slid into a straddle over his now prone form.
The usual nerves I felt before sex quickly dissipated as I outwardly affected the personality traits I imagined to be the hallmarks of any good prostitute’s identity-confidence and control. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say Fake It Till You Make It and that’s what I was doing. Focusing on the character I was creating allowed me to forget what I really was, an insecure high school senior who usually asked Chris to turn off the lights before we screwed. Also, even though I knew most guys would fuck just about anything, something about a guy paying for sex said to me he must really want it, and want it from me the person he was paying. I found this validation via capitalism to be incredibly flattering.
I slid a condom over Chris’s cock and spun around on my hands and knees, my ass now square with his eye line.
“You want some of this, big boy?” I said pulling up the back of my negligee like a curtain rising on a movie screen.
I didn’t need to repeat the question. Chris grabbed me tightly by my hips and we were finished with two deep jabs from behind.
After Chelsea took her turn, which took a little bit longer due to a necessary post-coitus recuperation period, we went to East Haven, copped a few bags of dope each and returned to our respective homes.
I was so happy and high I decided to actually do my homework.
A few days later, I called Chelsea from school during my lunch break. She had dropped out of school earlier in the year. Just barely ascending to her junior year, her parents had decided to let her take classes through a correspondence school in the hopes of getting her GED. Since they worked, this meant Chelsea would be home alone all day, waiting for her assignments to come in the mail. Free of parental interference, her family’s large home had morphed into the go-to destination for area school-skippers.
“Hey,” she said, “Make sure to come by later. I’m going to have a present for you.”
“Present?” I repeated, my stomach flip-flopping with nervous anticipation. Her phraseology could be indicative of only one thing. Or more than one thing, all of the same family of illicit substances.
“Tony’s here,” she continued. “He’s going to give me some pills.”
Tony Gionfrio was a boy in my grade. He had been born with a hair lip and in middle school would insert spaghetti up his nose and pull it out the hole in the top of his mouth to make friends. He’d had many surgeries to correct it but none had done much good, only adding to the layers of deep scarring that covered the area from the middle of his nose to the top of his lips. What surgeons hadn’t been able to fix on his face, Tony tried to compensate for with his body, at the gym. He had an incredible athlete’s physique that always got him named Best Body in our class’s annual yearbook superlatives. He was a peripheral person in our world, a jock whereas Chelsea and I were into punk rock. But in a town as small as ours was, there were no cliquish rivalries, and diverging interests existed side by side. They had to; otherwise, if you had a party there would only be about five people to invite.
“Give you some pills?” Tony had never struck me as the overtly generous type.
“Well, I’m going to blow him for them,” Chelsea responded.
“Chelsea!” I said, taken aback by her casual bravado. “How did this arrangement even come about?” Our dalliance with Chris had been between the three of us, though we hadn’t come up with any rules or perimeters pertaining to an explanation to the outside world. Chris had a steady girlfriend, so the assumption had been that we would all just keep our mouths shut but see each other again when needs and wants arose.
“I don’t have any money, so I just offered,” she answered.
“Okayyyyyyyy,” I said, surprised that Chelsea was actually running with the barter system and offering it freely to others.
I felt uneasy and reviewed my hesitations. Yes, Tony was our friend but the relationship didn’t have nearly the same years of foundation and trust as our relationship with Chris. But like Joan Jett, neither Chelsea nor I gave a damn about our bad reputations. We actually considered it sport to annihilate whatever positive was left of them. We wrote graffiti about ourselves in the school bathrooms and made out with each other in the hallways. I had pushed a planning room teacher and hung a papier-mâché version of the principal in effigy in the hallway. But Chelsea wasn’t attending public high school anymore. If Tony decided to talk shit, Chelsea was beyond the reach of his words. And I could always stick up for her and say he was full of shit.
“Okay, Chelsea,” I said. “Whatever you want to do. I’ll see you in a little while.”
At the end of the school day, I got a ride to her house. I was surprised when I saw no cars in the driveway, anticipating evidence of a shindig in full swing. I went around the back and entered through the open door on the porch. Music was blaring from the back hallway. Chelsea’s parents’ house was as long as it was wide, her bedroom so far from the house’s main rooms of activity one had to wonder if her existence was being purposely hidden from view. I followed the music back to her bedroom and entered her room. Though it was only mid-afternoon and the sun was still high in the sky, all the shades had been drawn and the room was completely dark. In spite of the absence of light, I could still make out Chelsea’s outline on the bed.
“Chelsea?” I said, unable to hear my own voice over the music. The ambiance of the room and her perfectly laid out form on the mattress made me think of a head banger’s wake. “I’m going to turn this off,” I screamed. As I turned off the music, I flipped on the light.
“Are you okay?” I asked. The thought went through my mind that maybe she had been unable to wait for my arrival and had taken all of Tony’s pills herself.
“Yes,” she answered, just as I noticed her eyebrows. Fresh dots of blood lined her brow line where the hairs had been yanked out at the root. Savaging her brow line was Chelsea’s primary nervous release; she usually concealed the damage with a brow pencil and powder. I had never seen the aftermath so fresh and forthright.
“Tony’s not back yet?” she asked.
“Back yet?” I repeated.
“He had to go and get the pills,” she replied.
“Go and get the pills? How long ago was this? When did he leave?”
Chelsea got up and began to pace the room in terse zig zags, stopping in front of the stereo.
“Please don’t turn it on,” I begged. As I spoke, I surveyed the room. Chelsea’s bra was on the floor near the bed and the garbage can next to it was filled with wadded-up balls of tissue.
“I hate that fucker,” she spat, finally. “He ripped me off. He fucking ripped me off. I stuck his fucking cock in my mouth and he fucking ripped me off.”
She picked up a heavy wooden jewelry box and heaved it against the wall, the jewelry inside scattered all over the carpet though the box itself did not break. From the mass of tangled cords and ornaments she picked up a Misfit’s Fiend Club necklace and wrapped its chain tightly around her fingers.
“It was so fucking gross. Of course he couldn’t cum. He kept making this sound, this laugh. Huh-huh-huh-huh. Like Beavis and Butt-head. And then he said, ‘Take your shirt off; I’ll cum faster if you take it off.’ Like he was the one calling the shots, like he was the one in control. But I figured, okay. I just wanted it to be over. Then he said, ‘Take your pants off; I want to see your pussy. Seeing your pussy will make me cum.’ And all his friends were hooting and hollering outside the door. But I would not fucking kiss him. I would not touch that scarred lump he pretends is a face with my mouth.”
She stopped for a moment and I knew she was thinking about how she could destroy the necklace in her hands. She put it down.
“And just so you know, his body is not as fucking great as everyone thinks it is.”
“Oh Chelsea,” I said, putting my arms around her shoulders.
“I’m not done yet. Oh no. It gets better. He came in my mouth. I feel so dumb. So fucking dumb. And then he tells me he has to go and get the pills. I don’t know why I didn’t ask for them first… and as he’s putting his pants on, I’m thinking to myself, I bet this fucker is going to rip me off. This fucker is going to rip me the fuck off. And I just gave him something I can never, ever get back.”
“He wouldn’t do that to you.” I spoke quickly and unconvincingly as the anger I felt made my voice quiver. “He knows we’d fucking kill him. Something happened and it’s just taking him awhile. Here, let’s call him on the phone,” I grabbed for its cradle next to the bed.
“There were never any fucking pills. You know he’s always been a huge fucking liar. This was all a big joke to him. Call him though. Go ahead. I want to see what the fucker has to say.”
I didn’t know Tony’s phone number, so I called information. As the only Gionfrios in town, it wasn’t difficult to unearth. His grandmother, the live-in matriarch of his large Italian family, answered on the first ring.
“Is Tony there?” I asked.
“He’s sleeping,” she replied.
I implored the old woman to go and check again.
“Makes sense,” Chelsea said, standing close enough to hear the exchange. “The fucker blew his load and now he’s taking a nap.” She grabbed the phone from my hand.
“Hello,” she said into the mouthpiece. “If I heard you right, Tony’s sleeping? Could you give him a message for me? And I don’t need to tell you who this is, because Tony will know, could you tell him that the next time I see him, could you tell him that the next time I see him I’m gonna cut off his cock and make him floss with it, I’m gonna cut off his cock and stick in that hole that goes from his nose to mouth…”
She slammed down the phone and supported herself with her arms on the table.
“I really want to get high,” she said. “How can we get some money?”
I had nothing to propose. It seemed crass to suggest Chris.
“You know, I noticed a phone number on that lock on the chest my parents put the change jar in,” Chelsea said. Her parents had kept a huge change jar in their living room, a change jar as big as the house the house they lived in, as big as their bulging bank accounts. Once we started raiding it regularly, they had moved it to an old steamer trunk in their bedroom and affixed the trunk with a large combination padlock.
Chelsea continued, “Maybe if we call the company phone number on the back of the lock and make up some bullshit story about our kid locking the cat inside the trunk they’ll give us the combination.”
About an hour later, we had close to a hundred dollars in quarters. Unable to find a ride to East Haven, I agreed to skip school the next day and take the train there with her, after cashing in the quarters at the supermarket.
After 8 a.m., the commuter railroad made only sporadic trips to New Haven, so we really had no choice but to take the train in at that early hour. We wouldn’t have been able to just rest on our laurels and stew at Chelsea’s house anyway. It had started to rain just as we boarded the train and by the time we arrived at our destination it was pouring. The weather dovetailed perfectly with our moods.
Chelsea wasn’t saying much. Familiar with her process for dealing with things that bothered her, I didn’t pester her to talk. I didn’t want to think about what had happened either. Tony and I had classes together and I didn’t know what I would do the next time I saw him. I assumed it would involve violence. There was a part of me that felt responsible for what had occurred. The arrangement with Chris, the arrangement that had given Chelsea the idea to proposition Tony in the first place, had been my idea. I also knew that she had been hoping to impress me by coming up with a similar arrangement with Tony, all on her own.
Since we were new to the heroin game, we didn’t have a large, rotating stable of drug dealer’s phone numbers to call. Of the ones we did have, no one was answering the phone so early in the morning. The anxiety we felt had an undercurrent of electricity to it and we had to move. After twenty minutes of trying to call the numbers we had without success, we decided to walk into East Haven and cop off the street. It was something we had done many times before.
Before we set out, we spent five dollars on an umbrella from the newspaper stand inside the train station. It was the only one left in the bin and made for a child, printed with the same repeating graphic of an elephant clad in rain gear as it frolicked happily in a mud puddle. The umbrella—along with the cost of our train tickets to New Haven and back—brought our original $100 down to about $70.
We walked for over an hour in silence, both of us lost in our own thoughts and revenge fantasies. The streets were mostly empty, the rain keeping everyone but the most desperate inside.
There is a non-verbal language that transpires between drug user and seller when copping off the street, a series of glances shot back and forth that convey interest and intent. It is necessary to give off these looks to unmask dealers and them, customers, in otherwise anonymous passersby. It was getting ridiculous constantly moving the umbrella up and down to show off our faces whenever a person passed or a car drove by so we finally just put the umbrella down and got soaked instead. The situation was getting dire when a bus stop awning appeared like a mirage. We had circled the block several times without noticing it. Now we ran to it and sat down.
The barrage of rainwater we’d been exposed to had loosened the fresh scabs on Chelsea’s brow line. She had removed even more phantom hairs since I’d seen her the night before. Since the hair she was so frantically savaging was long lost to other ravages, what she was plucking was her own skin. Streaks of blood, like deluded watercolor paint ran the distance between her brow and eyelid. It pooled there on her lids like a pale pink liquid eye shadow.
A bus pulled in and two young Hispanic men about our age got off. We were two young, white, punk rock girls in a completely black and Spanish neighborhood. It was obvious what we were up to. We’d been relying on that obviousness since we’d left the train station. It had made up the backbone of our copping strategy.
“What you need mommy?” the bigger of the two men asked.
“Dope,” I answered.
You reach a point when trying to cop unsuccessfully where you know there’s a high likelihood that the option placed in front of you won’t work out, but because there are no other options, you take it anyway. A risky choice is better than no choice at all. There is optimism to being a dope fiend that you hang onto until it is taken from you. An optimism that you hold on to so tightly it must be snatched from your hands.
“How many you need?” he asked.
“Six,” I answered.
As soon as the number was out of my mouth, I knew I shouldn’t have said as much. Discomfort and exhaustion had clouded my street smarts. I had wanted it to be over, but not like this.
“Give me the money,” he said. “I’ll go get for you.”
“No,” I answered.
I looked over at Chelsea. Her eyes were two big black moons.
“All right ladies, I tried playing nice with you,” the bigger man said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a medium-sized knife. “I don’t feel like playing nice with you no more.”
“You bitches be stupid for even coming down here,” the littler one said, turning to watch his friend as he slid our $70 into his pocket. “Look at their dumb-ass umbrella,” he pointed to our rain covering and its happy, frolicking elephants. “Like stealing candy from a baby.”
“Or a blowjob from a prostitute,” Chelsea said, the pink above her eyelids descending down her cheeks as she brought her hands to her face and began to cry.