The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous describes the fellowship as “people who normally would not mix.” That’s a good way of describing James and me. I was 27 years old, a grad student, bored and curious — just like my ad said. James was in his mid-30s, a little too old and far too normal. He was not the kind of guy who’d approach me in another situation, at least that’s what I thought when I saw him. Then again, James and I would never meet in any situation other than this.
I was a Craigslist call girl. James was my first. I had gotten the idea from a friend. “There are ads,” she said, “placed by men, looking for” — she raised an eyebrow — “company.”
That night I got online. It was just as she’d described: SWM seeks non pro, GFE, a little fun. FS. DATY. BBBJ. A lady that speaks GREEK, possibly, a road of possibilities, a chance encounter, no strings attached. For 200 roses, 300 reasons, a generous donation, a happy ending. You can start any day that you like.
On the now-shuttered adult services section of Craigslist — to the left and below where you’d rent an apartment or sell a couch — you could find ads, written in their own coded language, from men and women and everything in between, all of them after one thing: the simple exchange of money for sex.
It was just what I needed. Working full-time as a research assistant at a hospital, I struggled to make ends meet. I was single for the first time in adulthood. Besides my ex, who’d been my high school sweetheart, I’d only slept with a handful of people. I shocked us both by calling off the engagement. I was not ready to start a family. I didn’t want to grow up. In the weeks and months after our breakup, I slept with anyone who’d have me — most of my male classmates and some of the women — until I’d alienated many of the people who had once been my friends. I was guilt-ridden. I was alone.
It was a Tuesday night after class, and I’d had three or four drinks at the bar. It was one of those nights where no matter how much I drank, I couldn’t get drunk. No one would talk to me either; I went home alone, pitiful and unsafe in my own skin. But not 20 minutes later, I found myself in a yellow cab traveling south down the West Side Highway, on my way to meet a man who called himself James.
How I got to James is something of a blur. I remember answering James’ ad, getting directions, getting dressed, hailing a cab. I had his phone number and address written on a scrap of paper I held in my hand. I remember the cab stopping at an intersection, our green light, and two bright white lights — headlights — coming straight at me.
When the other car made impact, we spun. The taxi was facing the opposite direction when it finally stopped. I can still remember the quiet, the pause.
The paramedics said, don’t move. But I wasn’t hurt. I scanned my body as if it were someone else’s, but I felt nothing. Really, I told them, I’m not hurt. Not one bump or scratch. The driver lay slumped over the steering wheel.
“Do you have anyone to call?” the paramedic asked. I shook my head. “No family? No friends?”
I looked down at the scrap of paper still in my hand. I called James.
When James arrived, I saw that he was not bad-looking. Irish American, deep blue eyes. He was not my type, exactly — he had a beer gut and was wearing a Red Sox sweat shirt and a matching baseball hat — but he was a normal guy. As James helped me fill out the police report, I couldn’t stop laughing. I felt giddy. I had just survived a near fatal accident without so much as a scratch. This was so surreal.
“She’ll feel it,” one paramedic said to the other, “when the vodka wears off.”
Back at James’ place, I made myself comfortable. His home was nice in a Crate and Barrel sort of way. I sat down on his microsuede sectional and slipped off my heels. From the kitchen, he offered me wine. I asked him what he did for a living.
“I own a sports bar on the Upper East Side.” “You’re not having one?” I asked, as he reappeared with one glass.
“I don’t drink.”
“You own a bar and you don’t drink?”
“It’s complicated,” he said.
Whatever, I thought. Enough with the small talk. I drained the glass and returned it to its coaster. As soon as he sat next to me, I straddled his lap. This is fun, I told myself. This is no big deal.
Sex for money is not the same as casual sex. When you’re getting paid by someone, you become his employee. I didn’t understand this at the time. I set up two dates with another man and met James later that week. I sold the Girlfriend Experience, or GFE for short. GFE meant the encounter would feel like a “real” date. I’d show affection for the guy and act as if I were attracted to him. After a drink or two, we’d end up at my place or his. There’d be kissing, petting, cuddling, oral sex, sex.
Normal being what I wanted, normal was what I sold. I began attaching a picture to my email. The picture was taken by my mother a few Christmases back. I’m sitting at my computer, wearing a sweater, a knitted scarf wrapped around my neck. It looked like an author’s photo.
In the beginning, I scheduled dates for evenings when I didn’t have class. I made the arrangements days ahead of time, emailing back and forth multiple times before we’d actually meet. At the time, I might have told you I was screening my clients. The truth is that the emails were foreplay. It was part of the thrill. I liked meeting new people. I liked seeing new places. I liked being in apartments nicer than mine. I liked seeing the insides of fancy hotels. I liked getting dressed up. I liked making lots of money, fast. Most of all, I liked having sex. I was aroused by the fantasy of getting paid to do all this. Becoming someone else’s fantasy really turned me on.
In my eyes, I was a non-pro — not a professional, not a prostitute. I was different, I thought. I was educated. I was not drug addicted. I was no victim of trafficking. I didn’t have a pimp. I was doing it by choice. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t want to know. This wasn’t my career. I wasn’t a whore.
“You know,” James said one night when we were done, “you don’t have to do all that you do.” He meant, I understood, my giving a blow job without a condom. “Most girls don’t,” he said, and then hesitated. “Or they’ll charge more.”
I’d never given a blow job with a condom but, having been to the dentist, I knew that latex tasted gross. I said as much to James. ”Besides,” I went on, “it’s safe, right? I don’t let you come in my mouth and if you did, I’d just spit it out.”
James looked at me like I was nuts, like he felt sorry for me or like maybe he wanted to help. But he knew he had tried to help enough.
James told me all the time that what I was doing was wrong. He’d say, You’re a good girl, Melissa, and, Shit, Melissa, you gotta stop. A part of him meant it: the part of him that put potpourri in a little jar next to the sink in the bathroom. The part that had hung the plaque in the hall decorated with geese that read, “Bless this house.” Part of him felt guilty, ashamed: the part of him that would always offer me the ride home that I’d always refuse.
Then there was the other part of James, the part that contacted me like clockwork nearly every night an hour before he got off work, cryptic texts that would inevitably lead to my coming over, if I didn’t already have “plans.” This part of him was excited by the very things that brought him shame. I understood it well. It was the part of James I knew best, maybe the only part of him I ever really met. We can’t do this again, he’d say every time just as soon as we’d finished. He’d say, We gotta stop. And, You gotta stop, this isn’t right. He’d make me promise I wasn’t doing it with anybody else and so I would, even though we both knew it was a lie.
The fact that there was a “good” part of me — a part of myself that I was proud of, a self-esteem still salvageable — just as there was still a good part in him is what made me appealing to James, which made it all the worse. He was destroying that part of me, he understood, just as he destroyed that part in himself.
Refresh, refresh, refresh. After less than a month I’d started trawling for dates during the daytime at my desk at the hospital. The hospital where I worked had spyware; I didn’t care. After just one month of selling sex online, I had already accumulated a literal pile of money — tax free, in cash — that I kept it in a desk drawer at home. I’d take it out some nights and I’d count it just for fun.
I started squeezing more than one date in a night. I was meeting men before and after class. If the offer was sweet enough, I’d skip class altogether. I spent all my free time sitting at my computer, posting ads, responding to ads, emailing back and forth. I became less interested in getting to know them ahead of time and more interested in making it happen, as quickly as possible, so I could get on to the next. Every encounter, I got a little charge. Night after night in the same dress, the same ad, the same scenario — two and a half months into it, it was becoming harder and harder to bill myself as “non-pro.” I was crossing boundaries I hadn’t even known existed.
I once met a guy who said you can buy anything on Craigslist. He was talking about collectible antique furniture, but I thought it was so funny I wrote it down. You know, ironic. He said it as we took the back stairs up to the 14th floor of the granite building where he worked on Fifth Avenue, where in his corner office I gave him a blow job for 200 bucks, the city lit up behind him like a Broadway set. When he finished, he opened the top drawer of his desk and brought out an antiseptic towelette, as if he did this all the time, as if I were contagious. I didn’t write that part down, but I remember.
Every man I had sex with for money, all the strangers that I met — when it comes to memory, you have no choice what you remember and what you forget. I could tell you the good parts: the nice guys I met, like James, and the fancy restaurants. I could describe the interiors of every luxurious hotel. I could tell you all about the time I was flown to Paris with a man I’d met just the week before. We stayed at the Four Seasons and ate $800 meals. I could tell you the price of the meal, but I can’t tell you I enjoyed it. Hell is getting everything you want — everything you think you need and more than what you even asked for — and not enjoying any of it. Getting everything you think will make you happy and still feeling nothing at all.
The longer I sold sex, the less I was the person I wanted to be. After three months of prostitution, I felt raggedy, used up. I was anxious and afraid. Condoms broke. People stiffed me. The only way to deal with these things, I thought, was to pretend they didn’t happen. Trading sex for money, I changed.
James changed too. He began asking me to do things that I wouldn’t — anal sex, sex without a condom — wanting to take bigger and bigger risks. Alternately, he would email me on Thanksgiving, wishing me a happy holiday. He would ask me out on dates. He was a good person — we both were — but we did not know how to be good to each other. We were using each other to get high. I wanted real relationships. For me, prostitution had made that impossible. As much as I wanted to trust James, I could not. The first night we met, when the police asked, he said his name was Chris. But how could I trust anyone? I couldn’t trust myself.
No one forced me to have sex for money, and no one could have compelled me to stop. But when the pain became great enough, I became willing. Today, I don’t believe in accidents. I believe things happen for a reason. I haven’t seen James since I stopped selling sex, months before I stopped drinking and long before I became a teacher. But that is another story entirely.