This year, I’m spending Valentine’s Day with a guy who’s not my boyfriend (though I wouldn’t say that to him). I’ll be spending my evening at a stuffy French restaurant in Las Vegas, with a married, submissive man who’s several decades older than me, listening to him ramble endlessly about mergers and acquisitions while I pretend to care. Back home, my boyfriend, Tom, will be spending Valentine’s Day not dissimilarly, at a stuffy restaurant in San Francsico’s Castro District, with a gay, submissive man, who’s several decades older than him, listening to him ramble endlessly about mergers and acquisitions, while he pretends to care. Throughout the day, my real boyfriend and I will send each other funny texts about the weird things our “boyfriends” might do to impress us. He’ll pick me up from the airport tomorrow; we’ll both laugh and complain and commiserate about the tedious fake-romantic evenings we spent with our clients. We’ll talk and talk until one of us inevitably says, “oh my god, we have to stop talking about these people,” and then sex work will fade into the background again for a couple days, until one of us has to work again.
I’m lucky; I’ve never lied. I started escorting eight years into my current relationship, and we had an open relationship well before that. Although my partner’s not the kind of guy who wants to meet or know the other people I bang, he’s the first to acknowledge that ending our monogamy saved us from a poisonous end. So when I chose to start doing sex work it was a leap, but a logical one. Our lives are pretty boring, and we let the job be a normal part of it: I complain about illiterate text messages sometimes, and sometimes I want the car when it’s inconvenient. The biggest difference is that we use condoms now. But I’m the only one who complains about that. He likes them fine.
A couple of months ago I was at auditions for a musical at my community theater, and during the interminable waiting period I found myself chatting with a group of middle-aged women (why not the shy 20-year-old hottie in flannel? Sigh). Easy conversation bumped along, from “what are you singing?” to “I’m such a horrible dancer” to “yes, I am the kind of mom who plunks her kid in front of the TV so I can pee in peace.” Eventually, we were bound to land on work/money, which is a subject I stay pretty quiet about as long as I can, what with being a dirty whore and all.
The women were discussing a man, a local theater staple, who had to move out of town due to financial hardship. They agreed that times are indeed tough, especially in our city, “unless you want to do something somewhat soul-crushing,” one of them said. My ears always perk up at the term “soul-crushing,” yet without missing a beat, the rest of the group groaned aloud in agreement, as if they’d had this exact conversation the day before. “I did that for a while,” the woman continued carefully. The murky reference awarded no response from the others, so I chimed in, “what, like waitressing?”
It was Sunday night at the club where I dance, near the end of my shift, when my friend and bartender introduced me to five of her childhood friends. They were all male of course; she’s such a tomboy that I wouldn’t expect anything else. I politely did my rounds, shook hands and made introductions. Hello, Wes, friend since kindergarten. Hi, Brian, friend since sixth grade. How is Arizona? Welcome to Portland, Oregon. My bartender pulled me aside quickly and whispered in my ear how she had brought them here to see me dance. “I told them all, ‘You’re gonna fall in love with this girl Elle.’” I was flattered and thanked her and squeezed her hand as I continued onto the small stage.
The rack was full. There were three young women who looked like newbies, the owner and his date, and the bartender’s male friends at the end of the row. Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” began.
I’ve danced to that song dozens of times, and I allowed the beat and lyrics to direct my movements and maintained eye contact with each member of my audience as the dancing would allow. The truth is, I was exhausted. Money had been horrible that evening and I was simply relieved to be nearly finished for the night.