Monday, October 31, 2011

Fifteen: Exchanges

A friend in London tells me that she'd dined late with an older admirer at someplace discreet and semi-private and, on the way to her admirer's car, some drunken lager lout staggering by pointed at them and called out, "So how much is he paying you, then?" They ignored him and walked on, but he kept calling after them, demanding to know how much she was being paid and adding the usual epithets. She wrote me about it this morning in a dark mood--- hungover a bit, but also depressed and unable to get the drunken chav's voice out of her head. I told her to remember that the fact was that, there the morning after, she was still fiercely bright and lovely and well-educated and someone who's done academia and the gallery world both, and the guy on the street was still a drunken yobbo.

My friend responded that she was depressed about her life. The man she'd been with had been older and moneyed, and she was angry both about being harangued on the street and about the fact that the insult was dual-pronged--- she'd been called a whore, and her admirer had been mocked as someone who could only attract her because he had cash. She was, she said, more angered by the insult to him and to the relationship  than by being called a whore.

I've never called a girl a "whore" as an insult. That's not something I've ever thought to use as an insult. I've never looked down on girls who are escorts or courtesans or who supplement a deficient income by accepting occasional clients. That never struck me as anything to look down on. But I do very much dislike yobbos (or anyone else) who'll use "whore" as an attack on a girl beacuse of her sex life, her attire, or her partner. There may be self-interest there, true. I'm always the older partner, and while I'm certainly not as moneyed as my friend's admirer, I'm nonetheless vulnerable to the assumptions behind the insult.

I've had friends who did the demi-rep or part-time escort or domme thing while doing university or postgraduate degrees. I've never had any moral objections to any girl who works as "professional companion". I liked the girls before ever they told me what they were doing, and all I've said is that I wanted to hear their stories and that I hoped the money was useful. I can't speak about girls who work the street or who work in brothels; I've never known any. It may be that I'm only supportive of the girls I've known because they shared educational and class and aesthetic backgrounds with me. Or it may be that to some degree I feed off their stories. I recognise that I'm vulnerable to criticisms like that.  All I can say is that the girls I've known who exchanged favours for money were (and are) friends, to be supported as friends.

Someone I knew once upon a time came to me and made a simple enough offer--- she needed money for rent and she was willing to either sell me one of her paintings or spend the night. I wrote her a check and pointed to the bedroom. The next morning at coffee she took the check out of the pocket of one of my shirts and looked at it and asked if we were still friends. Of course, I said. She started to laugh and told me that the one thing that bothered her was the thought that I'd chosen sex instead of the painting because I thought her art was bad. I had to re-assure her--- very honestly ---that I liked her paintings a lot, and that my choice was strictly based on my predatory tastes in much younger girls. We stayed friends, and over the next couple of years I did buy a painting or two. Did I pay for her favours again? A couple of times, yes. Did she ever buy me drinks or dinner? Yes, she did. I've always wondered how initially serious she'd been, and whether she'd only made the offer because she thought I'd never choose sex. Why did she go through with it? And why come by again? I suspect that a fair amount of that was being nineteen and proving to herself that she could do it, about striking a pose. I'd like to think that she found me to be a useful character in the stories she was telling herself. We neither of us ever asked if the sex would've happened if I hadn't written the check. I've always thought that the idea of taking the money was what made the sex work for her.  I never presumed--- I'll note that. I never assumed that the exchange meant that she and I were involved, or that I could count on sex outside of an exchange. We did hang out sometimes, and there was some drunken making out at bars, but we only had sex again the few times when I wrote a check. I don't know if she'd have been interested, or if that would've ruined the story she was creating, or if it would've ruined the friendship we had.

It's Halloween night, and a night for ghost stories. There are ghosts in my past who've been part-time escorts, or been in keeping, or turned the occasional trick to pay rent or pay for airline tickets--- in one case, to pay for a signed first edition. Well, I do want my friend in London to know that she has my support and belief. I have no idea whether her older admirer is paying her rent or offering up envelopes of cash or gifts that can be readily converted to cash. If he is, then...well, fine. I do want her to remember, though, that she has nothing to apologise for, and that whatever she has or hasn't done, she's still far superior to any drunken yobbo.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fourteen: Mornings

The girl at the next table this morning had a copy of Wings of the Dove, a Penguin edition with a yellow USED sticker on the spine. This was downtown, in a small coffee shop adjacent to two of the new boutique hotels. Very early, and only a handful of people on the street. She was dressed as one might expect (or hope) for a Sunday morning, in a mix of last night's clothes and a few things obviously pulled from the backpack by her chair. I sat over my own cappuccino and tried to read her semiotics.

Some things are easy. Alone at a coffee shop near trendy hotels so early on a Sunday morning is an easy call. Not with a regular boyfriend, or they'd have come  down together.  Not with friends who'd come into the city--- same reason. The book is an identifer: the yellow sticker comes from the university bookstore. That it's a later Henry James novel says something about her major and how far along she is at university. What says more is that she had it in the backpack. The backpack itself is another undergraduate marker, as well as place for a change of clothes. She was planning on staying the night, and the novel reinforces that. Walking alone through the hotel lobby at seven in the morning in last night's cashmere pullover and a pair of wrinkled olive-drab chino shorts, shouldering the backpack, she was striking a pose. Sitting over coffee with Wings of the Dove, she was elaborating on that: the literary girl on a morning-after, a girl who'd brought a serious novel to read after leaving her gentleman companion sleeping back in the hotel room.

Harder to get a read on whomever she was with. He could simply be an out-of-town boyfriend, but then, why wasn't he staying at her rooms rather than hotel? If they'd rented a room as a romantic gesture, why wasn't he with her? She wouldn't bring the backpack if she planned to go back up to a hotel room.  For my own very obvious reasons, I'd like to believe the sleeping companion back in the room was significantly older. Someone she'd met and spent the night with before. Someone she was keeping as a secret-- after all, she isn't letting him walk her home, or even to a taxi . Out-of-town, obviously. Moneyed enough to afford the room. Married...not necessarily. Would there be money involved? Again, not necessarily, though I remain attracted to the idea of the envelope left for her on a table (hotel stationery, I'd think) with the bills inside. She might not be doing it to help with tuition. It might simply be her way of proving to herself that she could do what girls in novels and films do.

Of course, there are now two strands of stories being told here. The girl at the next table reading Henry James is telling her own story. The backpack, the book, the choice of Sunday morning-after clothes are all parts of the story she's telling the city around her, and telling herself as well. I'm telling a story for her, too, even though I know that I'm re-fashioning her  tale. My instant hope is that the man sleeping back in the room is at least twice her age, and probably more. I have to hope that, if I'm ever to imagine her leaving my own rooms on a Sunday morning. I think about the envelope with cash because I like the idea of a lovely undergraduate girl who'd do that as a kind of performance art piece, or as a tale she could embellish and tell to half-shocked friends in later years.

We tell stories about the people we see; we invent lives for the ghosts who pass us by. That's actually a small trope in Zalman King films, in Wild Orchid and Delta of Venus. The main characters sit in a restaurant or walk through early-morning Parisian streets and build up imagined love lives for strangers. 

Tell me, then--- how do you read strangers? What stories do you tell about strangers on the street, about the couple or the solitary lovely girl at the next table?  What are the stories you want to live inside yourselves?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Thirteen: Ghosts

I do wonder about the past sometimes. I wonder what became of the young companions from the past--- the girls I danced with, the girls I flirted with, the girls I kissed on late-night streets. I've always had a good memory, at least for scenes and moments. It's easy enough to think back across all the years and  remember  faces and names and locales. I do wonder what became of those girls--- the ones known en passant as well as the ones who were friends-and-lovers.  I do have to ask myself, of course, whether I'm wondering about them because of who they were or because I'm wondering what became of characters in a novel after that final page. I may only be wondering because I want to re-live those years and those nights. What I can say is that it's all-too-easy to recall faces and the taste of kisses and the music that was playing, and I do wonder what happened to those girls beyond the moments I can recall. Assign any reason you'd like, but I still wonder.

If you live in a city, no matter its size, you will cross paths with ghostgirls from the past. City life is always a series of small neighbourhoods and entwined networks. Six degrees of separation may be a global median, but it's always much smaller in city life. Class, professions, favoured bars and bookstores and bistros, few degrees of separation in our lives. You will see faces you once loved...or at least awakened next to...and you have the issues of etiquette and social settings to consider. I believe that current gender politics has very little to offer in terms of situational advice beyond the assumption that ever speaking to an ex or thinking about one is somehow a gender-crime and tantamount to denying subjectivity or obsessional stalking.

I won't deny that it would be easier if all ex-lovers were translated to separate or parallel universes and never existed in one another's world again. The issues of politeness and social interaction are difficult enough. Memory and regret, unrequited longing, anger, possessiveness, jealousy, familiarity--- all those issues are there. Familiarity is always a dangerous issue. It's dangerously easy to respond to a voice you've once known, or a laugh, as if time had never passed, as if the person was still who and what she was years ago.  Yet being guarded and coolly polite, making the sort of distant conversation one makes with strangers, seems wrong and perhaps insulting.

We live amid our ghosts. That's only a given. Those of us who live in and through books and films are especially prone to seeing the ghosts that swirl around us.  A gentleman of a certain age  has more than a few ghosts of his own to see. I suppose I should ask you what you think of your own ghosts, of how one deals with faces out of the past. Any thoughts or memories of your own?