A skinny tweaker girl with Manic Panic green spiked hair reclines in a bathtub wearing nothing but black-and-red-striped knee socks. She holds a glass pipe and scrapes the burnt crust from its edges with her chipped black fingernails. Licks her finger. Black eyeliner smudges her cheek. Soon, her mother will pick her up and drive her across state lines, back home.
A thick-lipped Goth tart with dime-sized pupils laps up cum from a gray Motel 6 carpet. A woman in her forties searching for her dog collapses in the street after too many Xanax. Her hair is the color of greasy Twizzlers, her jeans unzipped. A homeless man is fingering her.
An angry girl stands in a hallway with silver eyes. She scores dope on the job. She has boyfriends in “open relationships.” She walks into the building in a hoodie past security. She’s able to sneak by because she is white: pale with dark hair. She waits for the man on his bike who always lets her in.
These were my boyfriend’s other women.
A month ago I get an email. “Are you still dating him?” she writes. “If not, congratulations. If so, I have emails.”
A woman I’ve never met telling me that my boyfriend tried to get her to sleep with him.
I carry my laptop into our small, airy bedroom with blonde wood floors and one round window that looks out onto a courtyard where fat squirrels dart up and down a cluster of palm trees. Parrots flirt and jerk up to the roof when a neighbor’s pit bull prances through the wet grass. Crows click to one another. Sweet smelling guavas rot and splatter on a cement walkway below. The sun blazes.
We moved here six months ago to save money. We were in love. Every apartment we applied for turned us down because of our loser credit. This apartment was small. It would be cramped quarters, but so what. We wanted to build a life together—take it to the next level.
I sit on the edge of our bed and tremble with my computer balanced on my lap. Eric is half-asleep, watching a TV show on his iPad, the flickering light on his face luminous and lax. His profile is a techie version of Christopher Reeve, but sadder. He shifts his body sideways. I’ve invaded his space. His square toes rub together. “Busy feet” we call them. I ask him, “Who’s Rowan?”
He tells me she’s his ex—the one he dated for a several months while she struggled to get off heroin, the one he broke up with after he found her needles in his bathroom—the girl with silver eyes from the hallway. “Is it true?” I ask. He doesn’t answer right away. He squirms, his face a strange red moon. A motor rumbles outside.
“What’s that sound?” I ask.
“I’m farting,” he says. “It’s true.”
“Why?” I ask. “Am I too fat? Too blonde?” I realize these are silly questions but I ask anyway. It doesn’t compute. I want to figure out the ache like an equation but it sticks in my mouth and chokes me.
I want to scream. Get down on the floor and tumble away from the flame before it kills us all. I want to yell fuck you how could you, but that’s the Real Housewives of Atlanta version.
I consider the logic, but find none: The person I loved and felt safer with than any person ever before has become a place of paranoia and loss. The air is stabbed and fart-filled, the vapor of insult. “Who are you?” I ask over and over.
The night before, I drove home from work. Desert wind tossed tumbleweeds like bouncy balls across the road as I passed the Palm Springs airport. My car accidentally hit a small white rabbit that quivered in my rearview mirror. I whispered, “No,” and left the small dying thing in the desert and raced towards the big dying thing in my home. One good thing about stripping in a place where men pinch me and say things like, “I would lose my family for you,” is knowing they won’t. Another is that I don’t want them to. Family is a black leather couch where I curl around my boyfriend. I called him from the road near the dead bunny spot. He was quiet, except for all the yawning.
“I feel like you don’t want me,” I said. A fist in my gut tight and yearning. I stared into the dark, vast, empty stretch of highway, into blankness.
“We have interesting chemistry,” Eric said. He asked if we could discuss it in the morning, but in the morning he avoided me. Then Rowan’s first email arrived.
In the first six months of our dating, nameless phone numbers glowed on his phone and he responded quickly and casually like he was chasing something. One morning, I accidentally picked up his phone, which was exactly like mine, with the same clear plastic black cover. I saw a fury of texts from an angry someone. When I asked him about it, he said, “Drunk people.” He talked about a long-term ex-girlfriend he kept close in his life, so I asked him straight out if he had any unfinished business. He told me he didn’t. He took his phone into the bathroom, and later when walking one block away to the 7-Eleven, shoved it deep into his pockets. When it buzzed in the middle of the night, I tensed.
Each morning, he immediately scrolled through his Facebook feed for proof he existed. As if to say to these women, Like. Like. Yes.
The day Eric emailed his ex and invited her to fuck was the same day I boarded a plane to Puerto Rico. I was to attend a wedding with my close friend Piper who had breast cancer. Two days before our flight, the cancer spread to her lungs. She was in the ICU for an emergency procedure to glue her lung back to her side. No way could she travel. I sat in a chair by her feet while she sucked ice from her hospital bed. Her ribcage was sore, red, and raw—infected with the easy cancer that was supposed to disappear with a cheery pink bow post chemo-radiation and surgery. She held my elbow for balance, her oxygen tank rolling behind as she tripped a bit, tangled in the tubes and wires. “I’m not dying,” Piper said. But she was. I fed her watermelon that her mother had made into the shape of a birthday cake. I still have the sticky visitor pass sticker from that day—her final birthday.
I sprawled out in the empty airplane seat beside me—hers. A few days later, I returned from the wedding in Puerto Rico and showed Piper pictures from the wedding. Her eyes and face were highlighter yellow. The cancer had spread rapidly to her liver. One last Hail Mary round of failed chemo and the doctors gave her a week. Three days later, when Piper died, I wanted to lean into my beloved, but he was busy shopping for pussy.
I called Rowan. She told me when she declined to meet Eric for a secret fuck, he called her on the phone to apply pressure. He told her he thought she would be cool with it since she fucked a bunch of guys. I asked her about specific dates—about their sexual chemistry. “It was nothing special,” she said. I found out he had been fucking Rowan well into our exclusive relationship. He fucked her when I went to Esalen for a writer’s retreat, right after my dad had a massive heart attack. He fucked her when I was on CNN with Lisa Ling and used his apartment as a filming location. He fucked her after my book launch party. He fucked her after we went to the Gay and Lesbian Center on date night to get tested for STIs and HIV and again soon after that, after we shyly agreed to be with each other only. He fucked her for at least a full month after that. He fucked her commando, with no regard for my wellbeing. He fucked her as I fell in love with him a little bit more every day. I don’t know how often they fucked and I never asked.
I think about them fucking as I masturbate on top of the bed, face down: he fucks her deeply and brutally. She is his little anytime hole, at the ready, bent over and waiting to be fucked any which way he pleases. She slips him a key to her apartment. Then she becomes me: always wanted, always exciting fuck toy, bent in half, taking cock. I fill my loss up with scenarios like these. Circling around Eric’s lies and eroticizing them in order to ingest them, make them mine—use them for my pleasure. I want control while hurtling out of control. I want to be the girl in the hallway with silver eyes, waiting for the door to open wide.
I know about lying because I used to be a goddamned lying motherfucker. Lying was dirty, delicious and alluring and grubby—like getting high. I used to love drugs.
In 2004, I needed money and I was never going to get caught. Not by my boyfriend, anyway. Over time it gets easier, never harder, to lie, and I was sick of my boyfriend Nat’s stoner anger and inability to hold down a job. I drew blood and siphoned piss in a clinic for the porn industry so actors could stay on the payroll with their current HIV tests. On the weekends, I tried to steer clear of the lap-dancing clubs where I’d spent the previous decade stacking cash and catering to the whims of pleading men. But I could never stay away from sex work. It was my hiding place where I could get lost, be embraced and make money. It was a secret dark place where my loneliness raged. I could be anyone.
Nat followed his stoner band from San Francisco to LA and I chased after him. We moved into a lime-green shitbox with orange trim that was a crappy replacement for my massive San Francisco apartment. Beautiful-adjacent movie extras and too-short models who left their warm panties in the dryer downstairs populated our ugly building. I stole a red pair, even though they were never going to fit me—not in a hundred years. The yard next door was a Burning Man refugee camp with sad hammocks attached to bendy palm trees and succulents that had grown so large the edges of the house were blurred by giant green spikes. Across the street, Russian seniors in leopard-print coats hocked loud, wet loogies morning, noon, and night.
One Friday morning, I got up early and snatched the extra small red g-string and a twisty garter left over from my stripper days in San Francisco and stuffed them into my purse.
I drove a 1978 Nova with bullet holes that cascaded up the driver’s side door and listened to the AM radio that never turned off, just evaporated when I drove from Hollywood to deep in the valley with only the sounds of Christian talk radio and occasional Frank Sinatra. I was afraid the Nova would die or overheat on the way up steep canyon roads. Fred and Suzy lived in a gated community with horses and door codes. I gave my code name at the security gate: Angelique. I named myself after my friend in seventh grade who dropped acid and was expelled from school.
I met Fred and Suzy through a porn star at the STI clinic who had travel-sized personalized lotions made with her porn name printed on it, some flowers and her email address printed in red on the front. Nicole invited me to do a two-hour double show with her regular clients, “the couple,” and that couple paid my rent in Hollywood for years.
I told Nat I had a catering gig—for three years. I took a starched white tuxedo shirt, a used bow tie, and plain black slacks and folded them on the ripped back seat of my car. Grabbed my bartending kit for authenticity. Friday nights at 6 p.m. I’d leave the clinic and head to Fred and Suzy. After making Suzy ejaculate for hours with a pink dildo with wings, I showered and left. I drove my $400 to the ATM at Ralph’s on Sunset and watched the machine suck up the bills. My secret was wrapped in a toxic smoky shame rope around my heart. It created a spiny shield where no love could penetrate. I was accountable to no one. I was no one.
It’s free and easy to say I’m sorry—to love the one who’s gone, whose shit doesn’t stink up the bathroom, whose dog doesn’t piss on the floor. Whose cat doesn’t meow for treats each time footsteps are heard in the kitchen. “I deserve trust in this relationship,” Eric had said, after we argued about one of his exes he lied to me about.
I got on board. What a threatened, jealous, controlling bitch I was. I was silly to be so terrified. I was out of line. I needed to chill. What if he resented me? He totally deserved trust in this relationship. The first couple of times he lied, I ignored my intuition that said run.
My gut is a red, fiery drum, a beacon of rosy light. My instinct to run is a bright radioactive pink arrow, a bloody blade. I was correct. Eric was keeping the broken girls in his back pocket for a rainy day. The numbers, the tweakers, the girls with their ass cheeks spread wide, emailing him from wherever. His alias, his other women, his shame. I am sitting in the truth and the truth is red as a secret fuck.
By the time I’d met Eric, I was in a twelve-step program for nearly two decades and I longed for a love that was not a naughty drama-pot of detoxes and screaming matches. I ached for something resembling healthy and uplifting, like my recovery had been. I risked being up front and humorous about my history with sex work. I took my time with Eric. We moved slow. My demons played well with his until now.
The next day, Rowan sent me their email exchanges. In them, Eric’s voice was cold and professional, like an insurance broker, sealing the deal.
“I appreciate your discretion. I feel I can trust you in this regard.”
Nora Ephron, in her novel Heartburn, wrote that when a terrible thing happens the whole relationship looks different through the lens of that terrible thing. Like when he left to go buy socks, did he go see her instead? When he told me he was giving Rowan advice because she was struggling to kick drugs, was he fucking her then? (He was.)
The first time I lied about sex I was thirteen. At night, I snuck out of the house and met boys. I made out with them and they reached their hands down my pants and when I got scared, I walked the quiet streets and tiptoed over lawns and crept into yards and crawled back into my window. One time I got drunk and lost. Through the fog, I spotted my mother’s forest green Volvo. She pulled over and honked the horn.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” I said, busted, embarrassed and drunk. My mother yelled, “Where were you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I drank the bottles of liquor in our bar, diluted them with water so no one would suspect any was missing, then blamed it on my brother. My lying became effortless and quick, like a Facebook update.
Years later when I lied about sex work, I developed an eye twitch. Had migraines every Sunday. Bit my lip until it was bloody and mangled. My neck was always out. One night a boy from a semi-relevant indie rock band came over for a two-hundred-dollar hand job. My boyfriend at the time had keys to my apartment. Mid-hand job, I heard the sound of something crashing. A plate in the kitchen or a door slammed shut. “Get in the closet,” I said. I locked him inside next to my dirty laundry.
My cats had knocked over my bicycle but the adrenaline, the eye twitch, and the migraines didn’t stop me. I lied, hid, and hurled my body at strangers. I was jumpy. I never told anyone where I was because I was convinced I’d be scorned. The twelve-step program I was in required rigorous honesty. I wasn’t living an honest life and was desperately alone: a vanilla-scented ghost. The partition of lies I built had to be torn down.
I didn’t stop lying all at once. I simply paused when asked a question.
“What do you do? My friends say you’re a prostitute.”
“Technically, I’m a hand-job whore.” Soon, I spoke publicly from podiums, published a book about it, spoke on podcasts about being a sex worker. Guys whispered behind my back at AA meetings and women giggled. But I could breathe again.
One month after Rowan’s emails, Eric took his dog and moved out of our apartment. Still, I wanted to know what it felt like to be the girl in the hallway. Minus the striped socks, pale skin, and dope habit, was Rowan that different from me? Late, one night, I drove past Eric’s new apartment and parked. A young security guy scrolled through his phone with head down. Moments later, a group of laughing girls opened the door so I followed them inside behind a guy holding a bat, straight from the Dodgers game. I smiled as if we’d all had a couple beers.
“Which floor?” one of them asked.
“Five” I said. They pushed the elevator button. Racy familiar adrenaline buzzed through me, the same feeling I’d had sneaking out of my house at night, walking across lawns, drunk. The same feeling before meeting a client for the first time to give a rub and tug at a dingy hotel near LAX. My fingers trembled. I walked down the fancy marble hallway, past the girls with the baseball batboy. I paused at Eric’s door and listened. I thought I heard moans. A girl’s voice. Facetime. Or was it the TV? I felt my knees buckle and the taste of grit and terror in my mouth. I knocked.
Rumpus original art by Anna McGlynn.
Jane Starr created a video to accompany “The Truth About Lying”: