I was fluffing the couch cushions, ready for a quiet night in front of the TV, when my phone rang. I hesitated, but went ahead and answered it. It was a guy at one of the downtown budget hotels, who sounded raspy around the edges.
It was New Year's Eve. Usually I didn't work the big holidays; there was never much business, and what there was tended to be all the crazies. The other people who were all alone, but were also angry about it. But this time I thought why not; I'll get myself together and go make those ends.
I fixed a vodka and orange in my Jiffy bottle, drank half of it and put the rest in my handbag. Then I took it back out and added more vodka.
"I get the feeling you're gonna want a re-up on that," I said. I was talking to myself.
Then I almost didn't go anywhere, because I couldn't find my house keys. They had fallen on the floor under my desk drawers, it turned out. I didn't know how that had happened, since I normally kept them in the basket by the door. At that time I took a lot of pride in my living space, to the extent of being obsessive-compulsive: I couldn't even relax unless everything was in its proper place.
"I just need to make one telephone call," the cab driver said, when I got in. "I'm sorry—I make it quick."
"It's okay," I said. "Talk all you want."
"No, no talk. Is just dispatch."
I shrugged. I was aware of some disagreement going on underneath his "yes, fine . . . yes, yes, okay, I see," side of the conversation. When he was done he threw his cell phone onto the front passenger seat.
"They treat us like we are not people," he said. "You know when I was a little kid, my mother told me that you have on each shoulder an angel, and everything good you do goes to the one on the right, and everything bad to the left. They collect it up, these angels, the good and bad, and on the last day they weigh it," he took his hands off the wheel, palms out, to demonstrate—"on a scale you know, and if this one is more you go to heaven, and if this one is more, you go to hell. At the time I think this is a fairy tale like Santa Claus, because you know, mothers, they often tell you things that are not true.
"This is a new addition," he said, pointing to the security camera above the rear-view mirror. "Because of the killings lately. You have seen these, in the media?"
"So now they are recommending two things, either the camera, or bring in the plastic shields. If you can imagine, they are like a big bubble."
"I've seen those. In other countries."
"Are a few here too," he said. "Very occasional. But I think this is wrong. You know there is in this job the communication aspect. We are people, yes? We can learn from each other. I think for some customers, okay, you want the shield there. But not all people are bad because some people are. Can I tell you a story?"
A few weeks ago he was stopped at a traffic light when a guy climbed in his cab. Typically he would have had the doors locked, but it was late, and he'd forgotten. The guy told him he had been trying to flag him down from the other side of the road.
'He kept asking me, "Why you don't stop for me?" I told him I didn't see him, sorry, but I am stopped now, where does he want to go? He tells me just drive. I say I don't just drive, he has to tell me where to go. "Just drive," he says. So by now I know he is a little crazy, or that something else is not right with this person.
'"Drive," he says, "or I blow your head off."
"So we are clear now. I get my stick from under the seat and go around to where he is and pull him out. He swings at me so I hit him with the stick. I didn't see a gun, but who knows? Maybe there is one. I hit him, more times." He paused. "The police and ambulance come and the man has no gun, is just a crazy man. I react too much, but with things the way they are. . . . Yes, I react too much." He shook his head sadly.
"But still, I think we do not want to put ourselves in cages. This is not the answer. Is not just about living, but about how we live."
In the hotel lobby I was hit with a feeling that wasn't déjà vu because I knew I had been to the place before, but it was so long ago that I had only fragments of memory of it, enough to give me an uncanny feeling.
The guy was on the tenth floor, but he had given me instructions to go to the ninth and call him from there and he'd come and get me, because for the tenth you needed to swipe the room key in the elevator. But when I pressed nine, nothing happened. I approached the woman at the front desk, who said I needed to swipe for level nine as well. I gave her the name of the guest I was visiting and she said she'd call him to come down and get me. I rolled my eyes internally at all this carry-on. At that time most of my business was at the busy high-end hotels, and I was used to proceeding straight up to the room.
"He says go to level five," the woman informed me. "And he'll take you from there."
The guy emerged from one of the elevators just after I did, on level five. He had a face like a Jackson Pollock drip painting and I matched him up immediately with the voice I had spoken to on the phone. He was apologetic about the rigmarole involved in getting to the room, and told me he had just come from his home country of England.
"I mean I came from there now, but before that I've lived here since I was eight."
He smiled and his eyes almost disappeared under the surrounding skin and scar tissue, giving him a wizened and benevolent appearance.
An elevator came, but it wasn't one that went up to the tenth floor. He pressed the button again, causing the same elevator to reopen its doors.
"I'll send it to the lobby," I said, but a few moments later it was the same elevator that appeared again.
"We can take it to nine and then take the stairs," he suggested.
"Jeez," he said, as he stepped around a puddle of vomit in the stairwell. "I hope that wasn't one of us."
Floor ten, as it turned out, was behind a locked door, which he didn't have a key to. We walked back down again past the puke.
"Fort Knox, this floor," I said, when we managed to get an elevator there, eventually. We'd had to go down to the lobby, and come back up again.
"I need a drink after that," he said.
We sat there in silence, sipping. It was like we were recuperating from some major expedition. He apologized again but I waved it off.
"It's not your fault."
He seemed doubtful about that. I said something about the tattoos that covered his arms and poked out of his open-necked shirt, above his cobbler's chest.
"Okay," he said. "I can tell you're sharp. That's joint artwork. I just got out."
"Oh, that England," I said, although I had just been making conversation about the tattoos; I hadn't looked at them closely.
"Don't worry, it wasn't for any violent crime. I tried to sell drugs to a DEA agent. Pretty smart huh?"
"I guess sometimes it's hard to tell."
"That's for sure. Especially when you're high."
He gulped down the rest of his drink and poured another. "It's a long time since I've been with a woman," he said. "As you can probably tell, I'm nervous."
I told him not to fret. "I'll take good care of you," I said, and I meant it.
He wanted to talk for a while first. He told me about his mother who he'd found out was in a home that sounded like some kind of throwback mental institution. His brothers had her committed while he was locked up and now he was going to have to get lawyers to try to reverse the decision.
"I didn't even know about it. I didn't know why she never visited me. It's a terrible place," he said, referring to the home. "One of those places you go to die and that's it."
When he came it was with a full-body clatter and an extended series of vibrato tremors.
"You done good," he said. He had tears in his eyes and stayed still for a while, staring at the ceiling. "You done real good."
Then he got dressed. He put on black trousers and a black turtleneck. He had to cut tags off everything. All his stuff was black, and new.
I had just stepped into a cab when my phone rang again. I could see on the call display that it was Roman. So it's felon night, I thought. I asked the driver to wait a moment and he pounced on the brakes and looked at me as though I'd said something startling. Then he kept tapping his foot on and off the brake pedal.
"I've been trying to reach you," Roman said. "The last few times I was in town. I was wondering what happened to you."
"I went to the Bahamas for a week."
He paused. That wouldn't really explain the last few times he was talking about I didn't suppose.
"You girls," he said. "Live the high life. So—can you come over?"
"Sure." I told him I wasn't far away; I could be right there.
"Great. And do you have a friend you can bring as well?"
"I don't," I said, slowly, trying to sound as though I had sifted through a mental Rolodex of possible people but, on consideration, none of them would be able to make it . . . . "It is New Year's Eve," I pointed out.
I settled in for the drive. The cab got onto the Gardner Expressway, rocketing past the CN Tower and the illuminated office buildings: darts of greeny yellow hovering over story upon story of depopulated rooms. It was around nine, and very quiet. The only sound was the rhythmical blopping of the tires running over the juts in the road. I kept adjusting the angle of my head so as to hold my view of the moon in the slit of open window. I was being hit with strange recollections, random scenes that flickered through my head like snippets from someone else's home movie.
"I guess you're getting ready for a big night," I said to the driver, who was now zigzagging between lanes and glancing maniacally in the rear-view mirror.
"Oh yes." He jerked his head around to connect with my gaze: short sharp adjustments like a boxer working a slip bag.
"Miss, you have no idea," he said. "The people, they are about to go crazy, I know. I relax now."
The motel sat in a dip in the road, beyond a peeling green sign with waves on it. I slugged back the remainder of the Jiffy bottle as the cab slid under the carport joining the office with a row of rooms, opposite a covered-over swimming pool rimmed with mud and snow. Roman was in a room on the second level, right at the end. I felt as though I'd been to this motel and even this room, many years ago, perhaps way back when I first started working. I put my ear against the door. Coming from inside was a hip hop beat and voices. Of course, the request for the friend . . . I'd assumed Roman had meant he wanted two girls for himself, as he'd mentioned previously he was interested in that. Oh, great. I paused, and then went ahead and knocked on the door.
A guy wearing a white bandana and thick gold chains hanging around his neck, opened up. He had on white track pants and his skin was pale, and he seemed to glow in the crepuscular light. He took his time looking me up and down and then called out over his shoulder: "Hey Rome, your—girl—he seemed to be about to say something else—"is here."
"Well let her in, homeslice."
Roman appeared, through a haze of smoke. A gold chain dangled around his neck as well, in the groove between his pecs. He flexed his shoulders and tensed his six-pack, surveying the effect in the mirror.
"You're late," he said.
"I guess I was a bit further away than I thought."
"I hate it when that happens," the guy on the couch said. He was watching TV without the sound. Next to his feet on the coffee table was a bag of coke and a couple of lines that had been cut up on the laminated "Motel Policy" sheet. Beside that was a hillock of belongings: a cell phone, chewing gum, various wrappers and pocket fluff, keys, a business card, a buck knife.
"I have a couple of my buddies here," Roman said. "As you can see."
They'd ordered two more girls from an agency, he said, but the girls had cancelled for some reason. And then at another number the girls didn't sound like what they wanted.
"Voluptuous, according to the phone bitch," the guy who answered the door—let's call him Brian—said.
"Forget it homes, that's code for fat," Roman said. "Isn't that right?"
I nodded, shrugged.
"And the other one was twenty-nine."
"Code for forty. Right?"
"Then we tried another number and got an answering machine."
"What is it with you girls. Hopeless."
"That's just their bosses cuz," the guy on the couch said. He had a face that collapsed under his eyes before it rose up sharply for his cheekbones, and then collapsed again. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt that displayed his muscular arms, but he also gave the impression of having superimposed this physique, over a more natural tendency to be skinny. He had a prominent jugular and appeared to have dark, kind eyes.
"The girls aren't responsible for answering the phones," he added.
"Apart from Nerissa," Roman said.
"Yes, Nerissa answered," Brian said.
"We're sure glad she did."
"She's got a great ass, this Nerissa."
"Would she like a drink?"
"She would," I said. "Look." I glanced at Brian thinking he was so sloshed he could barely stand, and seemed to have something else (apart from coke) in him as well. PCP? He had an edge. "I didn't realize I was walking into a party here. It's okay, but it's got to be one at a time. In there." I pointed at the bedroom.
"What do you think we are," Brian said. "Faggots?"
Roman snickered. "I don't want to see you naked, boy."
"And I'm going to need you to pay me separately. There's no three for one deal," I added, remembering that Roman liked to complain I charged too much, and had a related habit of throwing the money at me at the end of the session. I recalled that once I had to go under the TV console to retrieve a couple of the notes. At that time I'd crawled around on my hands and knees more than I needed to: drew it out, just for kicks.
"That's fine. Of course." This was the kind-eyed guy from the couch.
"What's funny?" Brain said.
"Oh, nothing," I said. "I don't know."
"This one, always laughing," said Roman, while he poured a glass of red wine out of one of the open bottles on the counter and handed it to me.
I shook my head. "You know, I'm not much of a wine drinker. Do you have a beer?" I noticed they were all drinking beer. "Or if not, don't worry."
Roman gave me a sharp look: a sudden view of the underside of his top lip. "What kind of beer would you like?"
"What kind do you have?"
"We've got Keiths—or Keiths. Unless you'd like one of us to run out to the store and get you something different." Roman put an emphasis on the word "different," as if to say: Your Highness . . .
The kind-eyed guy got up from the couch and went to the icebox and pulled out a beer, flipping the top for me.
"Cheers," he said. "I have to apologize for my friends here. They usually have more manners. Or on second thoughts—no they don't." He pointed at the coke on the table. "Would you like?"
I said no thanks. He and Roman started murmuring to each other about something.
"Everything okay?" I said.
"Why wouldn't it be? Hey, check out the hardware on my boy here," Roman said, pinching the kind-eyed guy on the arm. "What do you think about that?'
"Don't worry, he won't charge you," Roman said.
I laughed. Ha-de-ha. Haven't heard that one before.
I took a sip of beer, and another. All of a sudden I felt unequal to the task. But I reflected that I had always felt unequal to the task at some level, and yet I'd been going ahead with it anyway, all these years. I don't want to do it, I thought. Fine. So you go ahead and do it. I can't do it. Good—so go ahead and do it . . . That was pretty much the bypass wiring that was now in place, smooth as keloided skin.
"We're good looking guys right?" Roman said. He was eying himself in the mirror again, puffing out his carapace. Then he stared at me.
"The kind of guys you could have a good time with?"
"Forget it they're all dead, homes," Brian said. "There's no nerve endings down there anymore."
"So I guess that means I can skip the convincing fake," I said.
The kind-eyed guy snickered.
"But you must be glad for instance," Roman persisted, "when you don't get some fat, ugly guy."
"As long as they're respectful I couldn't care—I mean I don't really care, what a person looks like."
"Told you," Brian said.
"So some fat stinky guy—"
"No, no." I laughed again, trying to get into a bantering spirit. "If he stinks that's not good."
"So what about some okay-smelling but ass-ugly, some Quasimodo—"
"Hey, what about a handicapped guy?"
"Or a retarded guy? Have you ever fucked a retard?"
"Lots of them. All the time."
"Man, she's just messing with you."
I let them fire off a bunch more questions. Like, how long had I been doing this? What did I do for fun? Did I have a boyfriend? Why not? Did I like my job?
"Sure," I said.
"Honestly it's just business," I found myself saying. "Some days are better than others. How about you? Do you like your jobs?"
"Nah," Brian said. "But our jobs are stupid."
"A blind monkey could do our jobs."
"Well maybe not a blind one."
"A blind one could do Nerissa's," Roman said.
"A blind chick?"
"I dunno dude."
"Might be hot."
"Okay, so, who wants to go first?" I said.
"It's Brian's birthday this week. He should," the kind-eyed guy said.
Brian hesitated, looking at his feet while Roman pushed him towards me. Then he tooled around some more. I got him in the bedroom but he had to go straight out again to get the money.
"I have to take it upfront," I said, probably with an undercurrent of impatience. They were wasting my time.
"You always let me pay after," Roman said.
"Recent change of policy."
"Here," the kind-eyed guy handed me my beer from the counter.
"Oh—thanks," I said, thinking crap, I should have kept track of that. But then he smiled again. He had dimples on his cheeks just like my baby brother so I was convinced he was okay. He joined Roman, who was flipping through some CDs and scrunching up his proboscis, producing two deep vertical lines between his eyebrows.
While Brian rummaged around for the money that was spread out over various different locations: zipped up in a bag, in the bottom of a drawer, in a pocket within a compartment within a pocket—I went to the washroom. I just stood in front of the mirror there, draining my beer and waiting until I thought he might be ready.
I was in the bedroom leaning over and unzipping my boots when I got the first rush to the head. I straightened up and stood still, waiting for it to subside. Things got hazier. Roman came into the room and I told him he had to leave. I think he did, but then he came back. There was no lock on the door of course. I put a chair there but that didn't do much. Then the kind-eyed guy appeared as well. I seemed to be realizing what they had planned, but it ran through my head that I could handle it. Whatever they've given me, it's not going to work . . . . I'm just going to walk over here; here's my skirt and my boots, and I'm going to put those on, and, and . . . .
When I woke up there was no one else in the room. I shut my eyes again and watched the patterns swirling around. There were rings that were appearing one after the other, each falling onto and replacing the one that had come before it. Eventually I got up and hobbled to the washroom.
I had an inkling that I hurt all over, but I couldn't really feel it yet. I looked in the mirror. There were flecks of dried blood on my neck and cuts on my arms, and I had been dressed without my underwear. One of the buttonholes at the top of my shirt had been skipped so the buttons were misaligned all the way down, giving my torso a jaunty appearance. I felt like I was standing on a surface that was tilting one way and then the other. I had a feeling as though it had always been like this, and always would be. At that time I was twenty-four.
More time passed.