I am a dandy, always out to lunch, and, so, more mornings than not, getting dressed is the most difficult part of my day. I am incapable of leaving my residence until I've rendered a meticulous sartorial model of that day's polyphonous version of my internal landscape. I am rarely punctual. I will never be caught in sweatpants.
"Horses sweat, men perspire, women glow"—an adage from my mother, who wanted very much for me to be a woman.
The first time I met Kip, the moistness of my body lied about the warmth of the afternoon. I arrived at a seafood institution in downtown Portland fifteen minutes late for our off-the-clock, Are-You-A-Cop? mini-date, my nose speckled with sweat, the briars of my armpits slaking their seemingly perpetual thirst with the tributaries running through them.
"I wish you smiled more often," my mother would say more habitually than "I love you."
"You're so beautiful when you smile." When I am genuinely pleased, yes, people beguiled by cisgendered femmes, or maybe who just like me, find themselves in states of "exhilaration." It is not uncommon for them to forgive, even forget, the shenanigans, foibles, falsehoods, and sundry bits of misbehavior that would otherwise justifiably earn varying degrees of contempt. Sometimes, though, my looks do fail me.
Sublimating in the almost-heat, I smiled very broadly for Kip, who'd later be the first one to bring a toy bag. His pasty hand dove into the depths of black nylon as we sat on the hotel room bed, a five-fingered drum major leading a pornographic parade of his favorite materials—a penis made of something not silicone, long, beige, of average width, and ribbed like a wife-beater; nine inches of wide-as-a-fist black dildo; a portable DVD player before the technology was even affordable and its tiny, soft-buttoned remote control; an oft-used tube of generic gel lubricant; lintless towels; and a Brazilian scat film not unlike the text that I would come to know, years later, as "Two Girls, One Cup."
I always tried to be present with my clients, but, back then, when I first started, behind a calm, engaged exterior, my insides were easily distracted. Perched over Kip's pale form in the loo of that very same hotel room, it is as likely as not—perhaps while he squished his paunch into the five-star-sized-but-still-too-small bathtub or maybe while I urinated on him, watched him massage pale yellow droplets into his flesh from his beard to his pot belly, happier than a dancing cartoon hippo in a tutu. Maybe it is as likely as not that my thoughts drifted from the scene before me to the couch in suburban Orlando where a teenaged me would watch Collectible Knives on QVC and to my mother, who would walk in; look at me; and glance at the television, the entirety of her body expressing disappointment in her middle child. "You're too young to be so jaded," she would say, more habitually than "I love you." She would never know, nine years later, that there would be Albert.
The name is a fiction, but it is semi-verifiable truth to say that Albert was one of my types.
Neither the Bespectacled Ashkenazi Intellectual nor the Bearded Portland Hipster, not the Socially Maladroit Creative-Type With Anger Management Issues or the Female-Bodied Genderqueer Lothario With The Rachel Maddow Haircut—no, Albert was not young or particularly trim. On the fifty-side of his mid-forties; his chest, arms, and legs covered with dense thickets of chestnut fur; his head-hair like a Franciscan monk's, the pale smoothness of his pate bordered by a wreath of short, brown hair—Albert smiled like a boyish midwesterner even though he'd been on the west coast for years. The near-nonexistent thinness of his lips belied how large his mouth would seem when he smiled, big and so often, his eyes besieged by tiny crow's-feet that folded up like looseleaf paper fans in moments of jest. Tall and lanky with a little softness in the middle, his limbs hinted at the beanpole he must have been as a kid, long before he settled with a wife and maybe kids on a piece of land outside of Portland's city limits. I saw him three times that summer, and imagined a teenaged version of him that must have been coltish and beautiful.
When Albert emailed me, it was mid-June, consistently hot already, and I was two weeks back into the business. Having fed my name's placement outside of a wood-panelled stall in a white-collar stable, I shimmered with the resentment-inducing pleasure that can only be awakened at the commencement of three months of louche funemployment. "Good to see you are kink friendly," Albert's message said, "I am kink needy." The sentence ended with an emoticon. I rolled my eyes, damp-bodied beneath my sundress, and laughed.
A significant percentage of the emails I received in the course of my career never culminated in the booking of a hotel room and the reservation of my "time and companionship," the commodities for which I was ostensibly paid. The font of time-wasters is inexhaustible, so the trick is to treat every query like it's earnest, like there's a well-intentioned person who needs your help and a bottomless pit of art-funding money, side by side, at the other end of the screen. It requires an almost-Taylorist discipline that borders on the miserly, but being firm about the time one spends communicating virtually preserves a sensible minimum wage.
Over the course of seven emails—from his first to my "yes" to our exchange of logistical details—Albert followed directions better than most: he provided me with his handle on the message board where he'd seen my advertisement, gave me two references instead of just one; he was polite. I conducted all of my business over email because I hate talking on the phone and the medium enabled me to screen prospective clients better than a phone conversation could. Most of my clients were able to competently string together enough nouns, verbs, adjectives, and conjunctions—correctly spelled—to make a complex-compound sentence. Repeated and/or egregious syntactical errors vex me—petty and bougie, it's true—and I had the luxury of not taking clients who vexed me at first blush. Albert could spell; his persistent fondness for emoticons, I forgave.
"Do I need to bring my 'equipment' bag?," Albert asked in his third email, "My main interests are in non-metallic (rope, leather, other, etc.) bondage." The unnecessary quotation marks around "equipment" endeared him to me, and I told him some version of what I told everyone: "You should bring any accoutrements that will facilitate your enjoyment of our time together." For completely understandable reasons, most providers don't let hobbyists tie them up. Albert was my only exception.
As an aesthetic phenomenon, whether for fun or fun and profit, the erotic encounter is an experiential laboratory with almost-catholic jurisdiction. At a play party or after a date; when I am alone or after the unsealed, white envelope is on a table or in a drawer, the seemly frost of my electronic epistles and outermost carapace gives way to belly laughs, conspiratorial whisperings, the panting grins common to euphoric dogs post-sunny day sprints. Anxieties fade and somewhere in the roaring hush, I am a woman—confident and vibrant, luminous and unreserved—the woman I can rarely consistently be in my non-work life. The testing of nascent hypotheses, the modulation of reliable methods—I have been called, I believe I am called, because, of all the things at which I excel, it is only these things that permit me to gain a more expansive and evidence-based understanding of myself. Having shed its skin of self-censure, molted zeal's new militant coat vests me with the desire to evangelize, somewhat imperfectly, by example. As I trust my play partners not to injure me during the kicking and caning that make my stomach a crumpled paper ball of excitement, hurling curses shrouded in giggles, so my clients trusted me not to judge them for being fat or old, homely or balding, mousy or lonesome. I'm charming without being submissive, patient without being a pushover, and comely without the fundamental snottiness ingrained in most of those assured of their beauty from birth. Conventional beauty, above-average intelligence, and vertiginous salaciousness are obvious assets, but I think, or, at least, like to think, that, at the substratum of my allure, rests an exhaustive knowledge of the contours of shame that permits me, ever increasingly, to revel in the lavishness of my imperfections, instead mincing them into everythingness with an analytical santoku. Self-compassion, I have learned, is communicable.
The first time I heard “Where were you twenty years ago?” I was astride a portly middle-aged man with self-esteem-crippling erectile dysfunction and we were both struggling for air. Swiping at my forehead with the back of my hand, I laughed, and then we both did. “I was four," I said.
Shortly before the unconcealed afternoon sun slid from Gemini to Cancer in preparation for the start of my twenty-sixth year, I arrived at a boutique hotel near the Willamette River, an hour early, to prepare the votary and ready the temple. Lining the drawer of a bedside table, I arranged in a manner that pleased my eye the instruments brought in my own toybag—latex and polyurethane condoms; black nitrile gloves; organic, glycerin-free, water-based lube; dental dams; silicone toys; and my trusty Hitachi Magic Wand, the one that would meet its death, two years later, in the prolonged, island-hopping battering of an elderly carry-on suitcase. "If you scroll through someone's iPhoto really fast," a friend said a few days ago, "you can get a pretty accurate synopsis of a life." Pictorial simulacra of the tealight-stippled tableau I crafted that day sit near the temporal and digital centers of a text composed solely of photographs of every lodging I've stayed in for the past six years. The visual artifacts from the month before I'd find myself naked in the semi-dark with Albert were of barely indistinguishable chambers in business hotels from D.C. to Cleveland.
An assistant dean before I put myself out to pasture, I spent my last stretch of college fairs hurtling between distant cities at speeds that detonated insects on impact. I refused to carpool with the other schools' reps, estranging me further from a pack that ate and binge-drank together, inquired about kids and spouses, feigned friendship in other ways that I could not understand. Even if I had been able to forget the parasitic politesse of interpersonal office terrorism—bookended as it was by pre-commute weeping and post-work pint glasses of Three Buck Chuck—the Stretch Armstrong-like grasp of email would expediently drop the latest workplace fuss into the rectangular, folding-table-length pen where I would forfeit hours, ankles swelling, installed as a spectacle for side-eye-giving girls and mothers in pastel twinsets and their exoticizing, curiosity-secreting men-in-waiting. Despite the modest occupational pleasure of charming middle-aged white men amidst their congenitally bored offspring and irritated wives, I could not fathom following a fair with anything other than an elegant, yet hasty retreat. Like coordinating complex travel calendars, the ability to disappear completely, strategically, has survived the loss of my expense account, though I would rarely use it after an appointment because I liked to linger.
Between a client's arrival and the preceding act of styling according to my specifications an already tastefully appointed bower, I typically had at least ten minutes to my selves. I'd pace, listen to music, call my client to provide the name of the hotel and room number, pee a time or two, check my teeth for the remnants of my previous meal, smooth my clothes, triple-inspect my labia for pesky scraps of toilet paper, tighten the ponytail I had until I chopped it off late in the summer of Albert, wipe my hands again and again because they were always damp. Even now, eight sporadic years into this manner of work, I still get nervous enough to glow.
Ninety minutes is the preferred duration for an introductory appointment. Thirty-ish minutes for getting-to-know-you, sixty-ish minutes for everything from getting down to business to saying goodbye. In the first ten minutes, I'd sit close, but not too close, and I'd never call attention to the fact that our knees are touching or that I lean in when I talk about the weather or riding bikes or whatever it is I'm reading at the time.
Waiting for Albert, the day's mugginess kept at bay by a too-loud air conditioner, I blotted my palms on the hem of my dress and went to the bathroom mirror to catch her gaze, as I would every time, to ask if I really want to answer the knock on the door. Sometimes, I just think it; sometimes, I say it aloud, searching her eyes and watching her mouth move in time with my own. I furrow my brow, I blink a whole bunch, I close-read the girl's face for signs of doubt, self-sabotage, dishonesty. I know myself well enough not to answer. I cannot make the acquaintance of my future versions, but there is etched, somewhere, the counsel that all attempts to re-ingest shame painstakingly purged will be met with scorched earth resistance.
As memories, my sessions mostly exist as pictures, or silent films, of faces and bodies, the ways they responded to mine. When I saw Albert and let him in, a set of hairy knuckles were curled around the strap of his duffel bag, lifting some of its weight from his shoulder; his left hand bore miniature roses from his garden, the same pale yellow as my dress, their diagonally cut stems swaddled in damp paper towels and wrapped in tinfoil, droplets of dew clinging still to each petal despite the heat of the sun. I remember the way that he complained, as we sat on the bed, about the family of deer who noshed on his blueberries; the way I shimmered, with him, as I have only in my personal life; how that day and on two others, his eyes would hesitate and his smile would flicker and he'd interrupt my laughter to ask if I were really having fun.
Alea Adigweme is a writer, artist, and educator based in Iowa City.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]