by Kaye Branch
There really wasn’t anything else I could do without making a drastic change. Aside from the money I got from my husband as an allowance, I had no form of independence. Romance novels failed me. The last one I bought was just as vapid as my other ones and it failed to hold my interest for long. The protagonist was a woman who was stuck in a boring secretarial job until a much older man whisked her away, provided her with a fairy tale wedding and a mansion where she lived as a lady of leisure. Soon after, she completely lost interest in him and was beginning to suspect that he also had a deep, dark secret. The secret remained unrevealed through most of the novel because if she probed too deep and they got divorced, she’d have to go back to her old job. Eventually she had an affair with the gardener, a British man with a sexy accent. She was supposedly an “every woman” who’d just happened to marry rich. Before my wedding, I was an “every woman” and I married rich, but the gardeners (who weren’t nearly as sexy as the one in the book) were off-limits. All of the house staff was scared to death of Hal, my husband, and I wasn’t worth the aggravation, especially when there were so many other women.
So, I did something desperate.
Ainsley was the one who told me about it. Since we were married sisters, we were supposed to give advice on recipes and other things as equals. She had to stop being my superior when she married rich. Her entire life had to be about her husband, and she said I was lucky to have Hal because he was such an amazing provider and better than her husband. It went without saying that one day I would have to convince my younger sister, Chloe to stay married. Or maybe she wouldn’t need convincing and once again, I’d be useless. There were three girls in my family, named in alphabetical order. Ainsley and Chloe had family names, but there were no family names that started with the letter “B”. I got Blissany. “I think Barbie would have been more appropriate,” my ex-girlfriend told me, before she disappeared and became independent. “In public, you’re always somebody’s toy.” In private, I had a conversation about paid sex with my sister and then she explained the café. The café had a real name, but we never said it. It was supposed to be a cafe and nothing else.
“Does everyone who goes there realize it?” I asked her.
“Not everyone,” Ainsley said. “Brothels are completely illegal, so they have a front.”
“But it’s not really a brothel.”
“It’s two strangers paying for sex. Just because it’s with each other doesn’t make it any different.”
There were flaws with the front. They had a hostess, unusual considering how many people just dropped by for coffee and pastries. No matter what time you came in, even if it was after the café section had closed, you were confronted by a female hostess, which functioned to throw people off. The café itself was also run by two women, who did most of their advertising through word-of-mouth from one desperate, degraded woman with lots of disposable income to another. The hostess’ main function was to separate people into two groups. She asked what you were coming in for. Anyone who was coming in for sex had to use the word “éclair” because the café didn’t carry them. The reward for that answer was a red wristband and a pamphlet, which she initialed after watching a person read it. Anyone who refused was denied a red wristband. Blue wristbands were much easier to obtain. You’d just say you wanted coffee or something and you were allowed to go in. People with blue wristbands didn’t have to question whether what they were doing was right or even legal. They could also keep to themselves.
Those of us with red wrist bands were up for grabs and made the business plenty of extra money by staying for hours until the right person showed up, because according to the pamphlet, we’d have to buy something or get kicked out. People with red wristbands chatted with each other systematically. No one with a red wristband could refuse to talk to someone else with a red wristband. It was in the pamphlet. You’d get kicked out for that and my sister warned me that there were some incredibly creepy people who walked in the door. But you were safe because there were limits on what we could say to each other and the questions we could ask. We had to disclose our professions, income brackets, sexual orientation and marital status, if asked. Offering reasons for coming was voluntary and confidential. You could not tell the person anything more than your first name, even if it was made up. Condoms were also required. The goal, the pamphlet explained, was to leave no lasting impression.
After entering, I ordered a cup of coffee and sat down on a couch next to the first respectable-looking red wristband I saw. To make sure he was clear on what I wanted, I stretched out my arm.
“Hello,” he said. His tone seemed too formal for what we were about to do.
“Hello,” I said.
There was an awkward silence.
“What do you do for a living?” I asked.
“Bike courier. I’ve been here forever. Most women think it’s repulsive to sleep with a guy who makes less than their husbands.”
“That doesn’t mean anything to me. I’d have a hard time finding someone who made more than my husband anyway.”
He elicited no response. I was used to getting a response when I told people I married rich.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
I knew I didn’t have to answer the question. But I did. “We’re intimate sporadically and I never enjoy it.”
“Not at all?”
“Not at all. You?”
“My wife,” he sighed. “She came of faith a few years ago. She’s refusing to do it until it’s time to conceive and we can’t afford a kid yet.”
“You want to be a father?”
He rolled his eyes. “No. She doesn’t believe in divorce and there’s no way we’re going to get more money any time soon. And I don’t have to worry about running into her here.”
“What does she do?”
As if in shock, he slammed his coffee mug onto the table in front of us. “Never gotten that one. She ladles soup at a soup kitchen.”
Ladling soup. I could do that - but it would mean changes and sacrifices.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
“You sure you don’t want to work the room? I’ve got a hotel room and a girl all set up for tonight. Told my wife I’m fishing with my brother. I can wait.”
I looked at some of the women with red wristbands. None of them were as pretty as my ex-girlfriend and I wouldn’t get a second chance like that, anyway. She left and became independent. She succeeded, proving that I could, but I stayed, getting cheaper for jewelry and designer clothes.
“I’m sure,” I said.
“Let’s get our key,” he said.
The desk for keys was in the back, behind a door with an “employees only” sign. The uninitiated never seemed to notice that there was something off about it. The decoy sign was orange with black lettering, while the real sign was black with orange lettering. Or maybe they just didn’t care. These things happened everywhere and it was safer here because of their hygiene policy.
“Room please,” my three-hour lover said to the woman behind the counter.
“Here are the keys to room fifteen,” she said, resting them on the counter where they remained as she told us a second set of rules in a dry monotone. “You have the room for three hours. If you do not vacate the room in this time frame, security will be alerted immediately and you will be charged with trespassing. You are required to split the room fifty-fifty, no exceptions, and will be under surveillance to make sure our hygiene policy is enforced. We take no responsibility and the chances of you ever seeing each other again are slim.”
“Got it,” he said, forking over his half in cash. With one eye on the entrance, I did likewise.
She gave us the key. “Enjoy,” she said.
He led me up a flight of stairs and unlocked the door to our room.
I noticed the security camera before any other part of the room when I walked in. Again, they were watching me and I was just a toy. The only difference was that this time I was entitled to a certain amount of pleasure.
“First time?” my partner in crime asked.
“Like a virgin. You’ll love it.”
In the next three hours, I loved it sometimes and hated it other times.
He left after we returned the key, explaining, like a real boyfriend who could be held accountable, that he had to check into his hotel room by six. I wondered where he found the money. Did his wife see their bank account get drained? She had to believe that prostitution leads to damnation, but she kept the cycle going by keeping herself clean.
I was confronted by the middle class when I re-entered the restaurant portion of the coffee shop. People came just to chat about things like school and work over coffee while I rode the roller coaster of sex with strangers. I heard some women discuss dieting, but they could eat pastries because they weren’t trophy wives.
I walked up to the counter and ordered a scone. The barista gave it to me without comment. Our chef was under orders not to give me any form of dessert or junk food. No one ever taught me how to cook. I couldn’t even boil water.
As I sat down, I took my wristband off to keep anyone from talking to me. Without a wristband, I could get kicked out, but no one said anything. While devouring my first scone in months, I listened in on a conversation a divorced woman was having with a friend. The divorce was so recent that she kept mentioning her ex-husband and musing over whether or not they could have somehow made it work. Otherwise, her life was pretty good and she knew it. She had gotten a promotion at work and was awarded a large settlement in court, although she did not qualify for alimony with her income. She’d also save money because there was no longer any reason for her to help with payments on her husband’s Mercedes. He tricked her into paying by saying it was for both of them and that he bought it to “liven up their marriage,” but her friend thought she was just a compulsive spender.
Even with all that, she dreamed of more money so she could buy more shoes.
“Maybe your next husband will be a billionaire,” her friend said.
The divorced woman was drinking what looked like a latte and a pastry. She’d have to kiss that stuff good-bye to get the shoes she wanted.
I looked down at my feet. My shoes cost close to eight hundred dollars and the divorced woman would go to her grave thinking that she was deprived of something because her ex-husband wouldn’t buy those shoes for her. On his deathbed, he would regret, silently, that he couldn’t provide the shoes for her. They’d never see what they really had.
If I kept going, my regrets would be so much bigger than a pair of shoes.