In the back of an Uber. Wondering what the driver thinks of his three passengers - a man in his 70s in the middle with two younger women tucked under his armpits. He's taking it in turns to kiss each of our hands. Sara does the talking while I stare out of the window. The city is a blurry sparkle, as if we're in a fish tank.
The hotel restaurant. He orders for us - fish - then picks a conversation topic like it's a record, My Ex-Wife, played from the album of his unchanging life narratives. It doesn't matter who is listening. If you've got a pair of tits, then this is what it sounds like, a rehearsed stream of consciousness broken only by those little murmurs hookers make while in listening mode, “Ooh”, “Uh-huh…”, “Of course”, “Yep”. Whole octaves of paid-for agreement.
A house. It's always dark here, no matter the time of day. His curtains are closed and his light bulbs are red. He sits on the floor watching YouTube and eating chocolate while we touch him, stationed silently on either side. The carpets are like canopies concealing years of spills and pre-come. I am mashing his floppy dick to a Grimes video. He asks to "feel my mouth around him". Sara hands me a baby wipe like it's a scalpel. I slather him in coconut oil, I guess because it's antibacterial and gives me something to taste that isn't his skin. We watch porn from his hard-drive and play with toys. I think the pornstar is hot so I actually come, while tuning out his commentary, "Ha ha, I wonder if she wanted to be a real actress once." He's saying it with that special flavour of derision reserved only for sex workers. It makes him feel good to mock her, I can tell, because he's finally getting hard.
A bigger, much grander house. I feel like a ghost as I float along its hallways. A spectre in a silk robe. Someone who has to be invited in, here to haunt his most private moments. I know and understand that I am an echo. The reverb of his reveries. I am a merchant of make-believe, trading in dreams.
My ex-girlfriend showed me how to be a hooker. It made our break-up terrifying because she was the only person I knew at the time who 'got it'. We worked separately but together on some weekends - clipping on each other's stockings and suspenders, having men over to pay us for sex, then eating burgers in bed with a horror film. Always burgers in bed with a horror film. I can remember the pleasure in tipping the delivery driver with a sheet of smooth cash from our hard-won envelope. That was the first ritual that made me believe in the potency, and beauty, of traditions. They bind you to one another. The perennial pursuit of survival becomes instead a sacred song, and I guess falling in love is writing the religion to go with it. We’d fight so viciously with each other, so hungrily and brutally, that our personal philosophies, our morals and boundaries, were revealed to us through the conflict, carving themselves on our nerve-endings like covenants.
We had churches littered about London on steps and side-streets – my favourite you could find only by sitting on either arm of the lock at dawn, shrouded in the vapour that rises like spirits from the canal. I knew if the world was ending, I’d find her there. I still believe I can guess where she is in the universe. Like some act of quantum mechanics, we’re entangled. And I bear the scars of religious sacrifice, letting her go. We hurt and suffered for each other so much to prove we had a love that wasn’t simply biochemistry, that instead ‘transcended our mortal instincts.’ It went too far, obviously, and we trauma bonded so violently we can’t be around each other anymore. But in those early hooker days, burgers and horror films in bed, life was beauty itself - a wholesome combination of savagely rough sex, chain-smoking out the window and telling each other our grossest secrets. Shame or judgement didn't exist between us, and that's the main requirement in your relationships when you're a sex worker.
We were already on the rocks when she got sectioned under the mental health act and eventually put in prison. I bumped into her on New Year's Day, 2020, in the very same moment as wondering if I would see her at all this decade, or ever again. She was smoking a heroin cigarette outside a pub, still in her jail jumper. I hated that she was sleeping rough in January using smack to keep warm, but she said it was the only way she could stand to be, “an outsider through and through,” and freedom has always come naturally to her - I'm glad they've stopped locking her up for it.
Whores reconfigure themselves in countless ways after their tricks leave satisfied. That's really what clients see when they see a hooker - a custom made, bespoke version of herself designed specifically to accommodate them, emotionally and physically. And then when they leave we unzip, exhale, remove, unwind, shape-shift back into ourselves. My current girlfriend and I witness both these modes in each other first-hand. We have sold sex together and shared sex together; the difference mainly being that in one scenario you're half-dressed in woolly jumpers with no lingerie in sight and the other you've been trying not to laugh for three hours as you watch each other fake a zillion orgasms while bouncing on a lazy client's cock.
Those little moments between us - queer love when there is no male gaze watching expectantly, having purchased their exclusive access pass to 'the lesbian experience' - these things we don't curate. But society itself is a constructed, curated thing, and our job, selling fantasies, demands that we both speak its language and subvert it. We become the secretaries you can actually spank, the nympho nurses or the kinky teachers, the lady-in-the-streets / freak-in-the-sheets combo, we become whatever our clients are dreaming of, allowing them to escape their civic duties and fall down magical cracks in the pavement.
It's important for our voices to be heard outside of the fantasies we embody. Otherwise we live down those cracks in the pavements forever. And what happens when we're left to exist in the shadows? We are only seen and known by our outermost edges. We become semantic silhouettes... whore, hooker, prostitute... complex and layered words that parade a puppet show of superficial meanings over which we rarely hold the strings. Our artistic legacy sees us as elusive and tragic creatures, beautiful yet doomed, diseased or dying, and yes, it is true that our bodies have been the recipients and receptacles for some of man's most gruesome fantasies, impulses and infections. But we are much more than bodily barometers for the toxicity levels of the patriarchy. We can be its bailiffs too, knocking down its doors and seizing the cash up front. Leaving furnished with its fruits, empowered and enriched.
When I bend or move my body for a client, when I pose, preen or perform, that portrayal is mine. Nobody but me is pulling those puppet strings and nobody but me profits from doing so. My touch is my trade, tenderly tendered; deliberate and not de-liberated. Our experiences belong to us, are felt and known intimately only by us, and our identities grow intricately under that peculiar, coded glow of red lights, assumptions and obscurity.