“The color is called peach sparkle,” Maria says to me smacking her gum. Her arm is extended straight out in front of her, fingers splayed so she can show off the acrylic nail polish. She proclaims proudly, “I chose it myself, the girl at the salon let me blend the colors.” She exhales her cigarette and the acrid smoke curls in the air like a serpent waiting to strike. She rubs cupcake lotion across her swollen breasts. There are tiny intricate wrinkles woven deep in her cleavage from spending too many hours in sunbeds. “I’ve gotta go honey, I’ve got a client. If another one calls, I need half an hour to get ready.” She rises from the patio chair, walks back into the house that serves as a brothel, where I work as the phone girl.
I live on the west coast of British Columbia in a dense climate under a constant threat of rain. My community is an eclectic demographic of seniors and young folk, fondly referred to as “newly wed and nearly dead.” The underbelly, though, exists and thrives despite the external guise of a tourist town. It was early summer when I answered a job posting on Craigslist seeking a “female receptionist for an upscale female owned and operated business.” Even then, I knew it was an escort agency. At my interview, they told me that for every appointment booked I would make a base wage of $10/hour plus $5 for every call booked, plus a $50 bonus if I booked ten calls per night. Soon, I was making $200 cash each night easily.
Still, there was an unsettling knowledge about where my money was coming from: the oldest profession helped pay for my tuition, rent, bills, and a little left over for my trip to Prague. When I began the job I knew it would be a temporary, short-term fix to my financial situation. Selling sex could be poetic license. In order to prepare I did my homework like any good student; I read Ashley Dupre’s column in The New York Times. I watched The Secret Diary of a Call Girl. I likened myself to the idea of being a madame, and practiced my husky and sweet telephone manner.
Wedged in between an industrial area and shoddy residential suburb is the brothel — an indiscreet building, enclosed by a high fence. The owner, an escort herself, has planted hyacinth and gardenias around the windows. In July and August the musky scent of sex and flowers lingers heavy in the air. From my little desk in the kitchen, situated away from the in-call rooms, I could hear the routing squeaking of bed-springs from the floors above. The girls always yell louder than their clients. I grew desensitized to the orgasmic high-pitched squeal. There’s a sense of disconnect that lingers there and never leaves. Each girl had her own technique for keeping a sense of self while in session. They avoided eye contact, faked orgasms, or always used condoms when giving blowjobs. They didn’t use their real names or ages. There was always a figurative barrier from letting the client come too close.
Occasionally the client would ask over the phone if I was available to meet him. This is how I kept myself private: I stayed on the phone, and stayed at my desk. I learned how to thrive in the shadows of the sex industry. I’d flirt back to the anonymous voice over the phone, telling him in a saccharine voice: “I’m just the phone girl honey, but I have a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead available for you.” I didn’t play the game, I just dealt the cards.
I would answer the door when the client arrived if the girl wasn’t ready or was late. This was an extra five dollars in my pocket. The worst, however, was when the girl didn’t clean the room afterwards. The owner of the brothel told me I could fine the girl $15 for forgetting to change the sheets or picking up the damp clothes used to wipe away body fluids. I never charged the girls though; I figured they gave so much of themselves away and didn’t want to take from them any more money than I had to.
It gets to you after a while, picking up one too many used condoms, baby wipes, cleaning up little spills of lube. You become familiar to an array of senses no human being wants to be exposed to, like the smell of neat little garbage bags filled with used condoms or wiping up urine from the dungeon floor used for BDSM. (The girls charged the client extras for things like golden showers.) My job was really nothing compared to what the girls have experienced. Meredith was my favorite. She had baby blue eyes and cherub-like cheeks. Her mother was a prostitute until she committed suicide, and Meredith ended up in the foster system. One day she brought personal photos of herself as a child to show her client. “I brought some photos to show Oliver. I thought he might like to know what I looked like,” she told me with a weak smile. In the faded photograph I saw Meredith sitting in her mother’s lap. Her face shined white against the camera’s flash like a ghostly apparition.
Each girl had a unique story, yet they were so familiar to one another. Many of them had lost custody of their children. They’d cycle through new boyfriends each week or tried their hand at being a sugar baby for a rich man. Most stopped showing up to work eventually. They never called. This was the fleeting nature of the business. They move on or they find somebody to take care of them. That’s all most of them ever wanted, to be supported and loved.
Prostitution is legal in Canada. However, escorts are not allowed to hire security or booking girls. I slipped under the grid by being hired as an independent contractor. Municipal law allows for escort agencies to exist under a business license, and this is how the industry works and thrives. Loopholes exist and those who manage to stay afloat find themselves constantly adrift. These women are the most vulnerable and victim to stigma for the way they choose to earn an income. However, they continue their work because they don’t know how to exist without it. I think about Meredith’s mothers face forever immortalized in a photograph and understand the cyclic nature of this work. It is embedded within the framework of their lives.
I left my position in December as the ground started to frost over. I didn’t want to become hardened. Three years later and reflecting on my experiences in the sex industry, I realize now that I was never a cool and collected madame. I was the visitor; this was my method of disconnect. I knew there was a little part of me that had begun to crumble and would fall into disrepair if I continued my work at the brothel. For some of us, the clutches of poverty force us to turn to situations we wouldn’t normally find ourselves in. Drug dealing, hustling, or finding cheap and easy ways to make money in order to feed our children and pay our bills. These were the girls who had slipped through the cracks.