That night after dinner, I stole away to my bedroom. I had a thick paperback romance novel on my night stand and a huge bar of dark chocolate awaiting its first bite. As I closed the door, Denise raced down the hall and began pounding on the door.
"Catherine! Get out here! You're not going to lock yourself in your room another night." She sighed and I could tell she was about to start in with the 'Catherine Is A Prude' monologue. "Catherine, you are such a prude." Here we go. "You know, it wouldn't kill you to come out to clubs with me and the girls once in awhile. It's a lot of fun, and you're missing all of it." She shifted tactics and began all over again. "These are the best years of your life—the prime of your life!—and you're sitting in your room, reading a trashy novel, I bet."
I turned a page of the romance novel and blatantly ignored her.
"Catherine. This. Is. Not. Funny." She banged on the door. "Come on. I'm your best friend. Won't you listen to me?" I could hear her go over to the closet and put on a jacket. "Okay. That's it. I'm leaving. Have fun with your stupid book." She slammed the front door shut behind her.
I set my book down and leaned back against my bed. I couldn't read, especially since Denise had just laid her prize guilt trip on me. I closed my eyes and willed myself to fall asleep, but I couldn't do that either. The worst part of being home alone and having nothing to do is that thoughts kept popping up in my head and I couldn't do anything to stop them.
I thought about the Agency, and the first time that I had ever heard anything about it. I was seventeen at the time, in my senior year of high school. I lived with my single mother and older brother in a small two-bedroom apartment, which bordered an all-night drugstore on one side and a discount shoe store on the other. At the high school, a rumor had been circulating about a brothel in town. A few of the lower-class girls claimed to be working shifts there in order to earn a few dollars on the side.
One day, after a physical education class, I was in the locker room, showering and changing. I wasn't close with a lot of the other girls; I knew that they saw me as more mature and not interested in inane high school drama. As a result, I had barely a handful of close female acquaintances, and a following of a few guys who wanted to date me. I turned off the shower and tucked my towel around me, underneath my armpits. I opened my locker and removed my hairbrush and began combing my thick hair. As I sat on the bench in front of the lockers, Laurel came up to me. She was one of the girls who was closer with me, although we had never really spent too much time together.
Laurel had already finished dressing, and she was buttoning her jeans up. "God, look at this," she said, squeezing her belly. "A few more Snickers and I'm going to have to move up to a size three."
I raised an eyebrow but I didn't say anything. It was common knowledge that Laurel was bulimic, but then again, in high school, who wasn't?
She finished buttoning her jeans and watched as I rose to my feet. I dropped my towel and turned back toward my locker, naked. "You know, you have a great body," she told me. I could feel her eyes on my bare back. "You're slender, and you have a great set of tits, not to mention a banging ass."
I twisted my head toward her. "What?"
She laughed. "Don't worry. I'm not coming onto you." She watched as I pulled on my underwear and bra, and she tossed my jeans at me. I caught them, surprised. "I just thought I would tell you about this new agency in town. It's basically an escort service. And with your body…I'm telling you because I like you, and I think this would be a good way to earn some extra cash, you know?"
I shrugged and buttoned up my shirt. "I'm not interested in joining the brothel," I said.
"Oh! I'm not talking about the brothel," Laurel said. "It's this new place. It's called Lorna's Lovelies and it's an agency. The girls who work there are called escorts, not hookers, and their job is to 'escort' the men around town."
"So, no sex?" I asked bluntly.
"Well…" she said slowly, licking her lips, "There is sex, but I promise, it's all very tasteful, and very very safe, of course."
Reaching into my locker, I pulled out my sweater and tugged it on. When I had finished, Laurel was still standing there, looking expectantly at me. "Why do you think I would want to do this?" I asked.
"Well…I know money's a little tight at home," she said carefully. When she saw the look on my face, she added laughingly, "After all, when isn't money tight at home?"
I narrowed my eyes. "No, thank you." My family may be poor, but I didn't need to start turning tricks as a prostitute. I shut my locker and left the locker room. I was halfway down the hall, on my way to my chemistry class when Laurel ran up next to me, panting slightly.
"Just think about it," she said pleadingly, tucking a small business card into my jeans pocket.
Of course, it wasn't until later that I realized that Laurel worked at Lorna's Lovelies, and she received a very hefty commission for every new girl she pulled into the Agency.
Later that evening, Mom didn't come home for dinner, so I made a pot of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and mixed some frozen peas into it. My brother, Michael, and I ate by ourselves at the little kitchen table in the nook of the living room. Michael was two years older than me, and he was working two jobs as a bag boy at the local QFC and a shoe salesman at Payless in order to put himself through community college. Mom was an aide or recess teacher at the elementary school across the street, but she often picked up spare work as a spooler in the evening at the thread factory across the water. We assumed that she was at the factory right now.
Michael and I ate mostly in silence, but it was a comfortable silence, grown from years and years of protecting and caring for each other. We didn't need to talk to show the other that we cared.
Michael cleared his throat. "Do we have any more macaroni?"
I jumped up and grabbed the pot off the stove and began ladling some into his bowl. He looked up thankfully.
The door banged open and Mom walked in. She looked exhausted. She held her bulging tote in one hand and a box of supplies in the other. I raced to the door to help him with her things. After placing the tote carefully on a hook by the door, I led her to the kitchen table and began serving up a bowl of macaroni for her.
"No thank you, dear," she said to me, holding up a tired hand. "I'm not hungry."
"Were you working at the factory?" Michael asked.
Mom shook her head. "The factory didn't have any work for me tonight." She buried her head in her hands, and the next words came out muffled. "I lost my job at the school today."
"Oh my god," Michael said, jumping to his feet. He began rubbing her back in small circles. "Oh my god."
I just stared at her as she lifted her hand and tearfully began to speak. "The principal said that they're letting half the aides go because 'they're not as worried about the children's safety anymore!'" She wiped her eyes and added, "Jesus Christ! Can you believe it? They're not worried about the children's safety anymore."
"Shh…it's okay," Michael said comfortingly, pulling a chair up next to her. "We'll manage. We always do."
"We can't!" Mom wailed. "The rent is a month overdue on this piece-of-crap apartment, and I haven't bought groceries in two weeks, Catherine has to order a graduation cap and gown, and your tuition is due next week!"
"Shh…" Michael continued.
I didn't say a word as I silently left the living room and headed down the narrow hall to the bedroom I shared with my mother. In the bedroom, I slumped down onto my bed, facing the curtained window. I could hear Mom sobbing in the living room and Michael's deep voice consoling her. I shifted on the bed and something sharp poked me in the hip. As I reached down, I realized that Laurel's card was poking me and I took it out. It was creased along a corner and I fingered the fold. Without realizing it, I had picked up the phone with the other hand and my fingers were poised above the numbers. Taking a deep breath, I looked at the business card again, memorized the telephone number and punched it in. Here goes nothing…
I set up an interview with Lorna of Lorna's Lovelies for the following Saturday, and I followed her directions to downtown, where the Agency was located. Lorna's directions led me to a narrow, modern-looking building sandwiched between two similar buildings in the Industrial District. It looked about four or five stories high, and I later learned that the upper stories housed Lorna's private apartment.
I had to be buzzed in, and I quickly noticed that the lower-floor windows and doors were all double-barred over with thick, sturdy black iron. The blonde girl sitting behind the front counter gave me a smile as she buzzed me in. "Hi. I'm Jackie," she said.
I took the place in. There was marble everywhere. A small, circular fountain bubbled in the middle of the room, and slender niches were carved in the walls from marble, each holding a graceful porcelain statue or a narrow potted plant. "Hi, I'm—"
"Catherine, right?" Jackie said.
I nodded, taken slightly aback.
"Good. You can go wait on the second floor, first office on the right. Lorna will meet you there; she's expecting you." Jackie motioned toward the chrome-plated elevator against the far wall. She saw my face and added, "Don't be nervous, honey. It'll be a breeze."
I took the elevator up to the second floor and entered the first office on the right. A tall, slim older woman was sitting behind the formidable mahogany desk, gracefully writing something down on a thick tablet of embossed ivory paper. She didn't look up as I entered. "Catherine, hello. Please take a seat." By the time I was seated, she had already stowed the paper out of sight and was neatly placing the cap back on her pen. "So, I see you're interested in taking a position with us, Catherine," Lorna said calmly.
I nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
"Good, good. Stand up, dear." I nervously rose to my feet. "Now, turn around. Slowly, please. Good job, dear, good job. You can sit back down now." She deftly uncapped her pen and scribbled down something on a clipboard off to the side. "Now, any experience?"
I was puzzled. "Experience…do you mean—?"
"Well, yes, dear."
"No, not exactly."
"All right. Now, I have to ask this question: Are you a virgin?" Laurel pressed, her pen posed expectantly above the clipboard.
"No, ma'am," I answered, avoiding her eyes.
"That's all right, dear. It's perfectly fine. Most of our girls aren't virgins when they come to us. Don't have that look on, child." She made a note of my non-virgin status on the clipboard. "One last question: Are you eighteen?"
"I'm seventeen, ma'am."
"Oh, dear. I'm sorry, Catherine, but we won't be able to use you. Escort services are a barely legal business enough; we certainly can't have underaged escorts employed at the Agency. Sorry, dear, come back when you turn eighteen and I'll hire you in a second."
And so I went home, but I came back a month and a half later; two days after my eighteenth birthday. I was promptly hired as the Agency's newest—and youngest—escort, and I wasted no time in promptly establishing my reputation as the girl who played fair and worked hard.
I met Denise easily enough. I was at the library one drizzly September morning a little over a year after I had started working at the Agency. After checking out a few books, I headed outside and saw a neon pink flyer stapled against the community bulletin board in the lobby of the library.
Roommate Wanted, it read.
Two bedroom, one bathroom apartment with a great view and a private balcony. Full use of apartment, including kitchen. Must be female, unless you are a very attractive male who prefers pleasantly plump blonde girls, in which case, call me as soon as you can!
615 West Waverly Way; 637-1363.
Grinning, I tore the flyer off the wall and pulled a handful of nickels out of my pocket. I walked a few feet over to the pay phone in the library and dialed.
The apartment was located just a few blocks away from the park, and it was upstairs from a Starbucks, which suited me perfectly. Denise was painting her toenails in the living room when I arrived for an inspection.
"Come in. It's unlocked," she called after I politely rang the buzzer next to the front door.
I stepped inside and took a look around. The living area was moderately sized, with neat curtains at the window and a comfortable looking couch, which Denise was currently stretched out upon. There was an angled nook off to the left, which held a dining room table and matching chairs. On the right, a set of sliding doors led onto a small balcony overlooking the street below.
Denise carefully brushed the nail polish over her big toe. "You like?" she asked me bluntly.
I took in her tousled blonde hair, yellow sundress and flashing blue eyes. "I like," I agreed.
"Come on. You haven't even seen your bedroom yet." She jumped to her feet and hobbled toward the hallway, carefully avoiding touching her wet toenails to the carpet. She threw open the door at the end of the hallway. "See. It would be all yours."
I peeked in. A double bed was pushed against one wall, and a pine wardrobe was against the other. A large double-paned window offered a view across the street as well as letting the sparse afternoon light into the place. It was plain, but nice. And it was a room all to myself—a huge step up from sleeping in a dinky little cot in the same room as my mother.
"So…" Denise gazed at me expectantly.
"I'll take it."
And that brings us back to today.
I opened my eyes as I forced all of these images out of my head. Thumbing open my book, I squinted my eyes and began to read. I took a bite of chocolate and drifted away from reality.