I was taken to a brothel a few times when I was thirteen and lived in a small town in Texas near the Mexican border. I had a friend, Bill Howard, whose dad was somehow or another involved in the Mexican radio industry and would meet business associates across the border at a place called Hunter’s Ranch.
I’d heard a famous donkey show went on at Hunter’s Ranch, but we’d go in the afternoon, and it looked like any bar I’d been to with my own dad. We never saw a donkey at Hunter’s Ranch, just a couple hefty-armed women in skirts so tight it looked like they had packs of hot dogs taped to the back of their thighs.
Me and Bill would shoot pool and drink Cokes. Once one of the ladies walked over to the table me and Bill waited at. She stuck her fingers in my glass and fished out a Maraschino cherry. Then she chomped the cherry a few times before smiling at me and spitting the stem back into my glass. Sometimes Bill’s dad would go behind a set of heavy doors with one of the women, and sometimes he wouldn’t.
Eighteen years later I paid for sex for the first time at a brothel in Christchurch, New Zealand. My wife and I had separated, and my friend Julian, who’s an artist and who spends time in Christchurch, recommended I go there to recover.
Let me say that I didn’t entirely intend to go to brothels, though Julian recommended these too, but I quickly realized I lacked the charm, or confidence, or some essential trait required to have luck with women at the bars. Even when I was younger, before I was married, before I had a gut rising like Pizza dough, before the hair on my chest was thicker than the hair on my head, I wasn’t the kind of guy women would wait in lines to go home with.
The brothels aren’t hard to find. Julian told me to look for neon signs that read “Massage” with arrows pointing up unassuming stairwells above appliance stores and fish and chips joints. There wasn’t a reason I chose one over any other except that it was on my way back to my hotel after striking out at the bar, or not even swinging would be a better stupid metaphor, and drinking always multiplies how sorry I feel for myself.
“Half hour or an hour,” an unappealing looking woman behind the counter asked. My first thought was, God, I hope this woman isn’t one of the prostitutes. The lobby reminded me of a doctor’s office. Though it lacked an uncomfortable sofa – any sofa for that matter – and an outdated selection of magazines, the price seemed unreasonably high for the service provided, and with a door separating me from the prostitutes I suffered from nervousness.
“Half hour or an hour,” the woman repeated.
I chose an hour because drinking also multiplies my faith in my abilities. I was led through a door into a room where four Maori women were sitting together on an antique-looking couch facing me. The room had red-wine-colored carpet, the uncomfortable-looking furniture the lobby lacked, and a pleasantness throughout that reminded me of my grandmother’s house.
I visited a strip club a number of years back while passing through Nashville. They had a sign that said “Hundreds of Beautiful Girls and Three Ugly Ones.” It happened that the three ugly ones were the ones working that night in Nashville. It was honest and decent advertising that this brothel made no such claims about beauty. The women were old and heavy. In a strip club it is easy enough to have a beer, give a tip or two, and leave. It would seem hurtful to back away from a brothel once face to face with prostitutes. There wasn’t much to encourage me to pick one from another, other than one was staring at me the way a hopelessly un-athletic child does when they hope not to get picked last at dodgeball. Maybe she was having a slow night and could use the money. Or maybe that’s just how her face looked.
She led me down a hall into a room that still reminded me of my grandmother’s. My own house reminds me of my grandmother’s too. My wife decorated it all with fake antique. Overpriced junk that was hard on it and my back to move. The stuff here looked real antique. Heavy stuff with red stain, a king-size with brass bed posts. There was a sticky sweetness about the place, and a shower in the corner, smooth tile, merlot colored, which she requested that I use to clean myself, specifically my genitals.
She was a big woman with a fat neck that engulfed her chin, and an overall shapelessness that reminded me of creatures that graze the bottom of the sea. But she was full of plenty of phony oohs and ahhs, and this I appreciated. My wife was thirty years old and never had an orgasm (not from sex anyway, she had one once during workouts for her aerobicise class). I’m not even sure she liked sex, but she could’ve put on a better show for my sake. It got to the point where I stopped ejaculating from sex too. On the occasions that we had sex, we were pointlessly rubbing our dry parts together. We’re lucky we didn’t burn down the house.
With this prostitute, our combined ugliness made me think of animals in the jungle. No emotional attachments, just sex. Physical gratification (at least on my part).
I came back the next night. And I chose the same woman, but this time I paid for only a half hour. The night before I had finished well before the hour expired, but was only given the option to shower before I was directed to the entrance.
Even this time I finished before my time expired. I kept an eye on my wristwatch.
“You may clean yourself in the shower if you wish,” she said.
“I have twelve minutes left,” I said.
“It’s twelve forty-four. I should get the time I paid for.”
“You’ve had your pop. That’s how it works. What do you think? You don’t complain when your pictures are developed in less than an hour, do you? If you want more, you can pay for more.” She looked at my genitals. “Could you even get it up again?”
I would have to admit it would be a challenge in the time remaining. “How about we talk?”
“What is there to talk about?” She stood, and I watched as she slid her underpants back on.
“Do you ever orgasm?”
“Look, if you want me to talk dirty, you’re going to have to pay.”
“I’m sorry. I mean it as a serious question.”
“From a customer?”
“There is no passion or desire in this.”
“Can’t you fool yourself?” I can’t say I liked looking at her body in the traditional sense, but if you got over the fact that she was a woman, there was definitely a kind of beauty there, like a wedding cake or a nice sofa.
“Why would I want to? And your time is up?”
“I would like to talk some more.”
“We can do what you like, but it all costs the same.”
“No, I mean, maybe over coffee. I don’t know anyone here. I thought maybe you’d be interested in meeting after work.”
“I don’t give freebies either if that’s what you’re after. But I like to eat after work. You may meet me at a place called The Honey Pot on the corner of Lichfield and Manchester at four thirty.”
I met her at the Honey Pot. She ate with a ferocious appetite, but who knows, in her line of work she may burn as many calories as an Olympic swimmer. I learned her name was Alana and I began meeting her every night she worked for sex and every morning after for a meal. We talked about all sorts of things, most of them of no value other than to reinforce a human companionship, but she told me why and how she got into the prostitution business, which I’ll respect her by not sharing, but I’ll say the reasoning didn’t make much sense to me, though I will also say what I’ve told her about my marriage didn’t make much sense to her.
I looked forward all day to these encounters. I’d sleep for twelve hours a day so I’d have to occupy less time in between these meetings, which usually consisted of sitting at the hotel bar or watching rugby in my room with a bottle of red absinthe and green apple juice. Before I arrived in New Zealand, Julian told me all sorts of things I must do, walk barefoot in the fine sand and cool waters of Golden Bay, kayak with the dolphins in the fiordlands, bathe in the hot pools at Franz Josef Glacier. The problem with nature, while it may offer lots of ways to please the senses, it does little to distract the mind. Nothing mends a broken heart like sex and companionship, even when you have to pay for it.
On some mornings a coworker of Alana’s, Tina, would join us for food. She was a large sad woman who was missing all of her front teeth. When she yelled, which was most of the time, her loose jowls made me think of a talking basset hound. She had discovered that her oldest daughter had recently began working at a brothel.
“I will die before I allow the little bitch to live this way,” she said. “I have sacrificed too much. A couple nights ago I went there and carried her out like a child. She was screaming and clawing at my face, and she bit my shoulder until she drew blood. Customers will see that mark on my body and try it themselves. It is bad for business. She went back last night so I followed her. When they saw me come in, three of the other girls forced me back down the stairs by hitting at me with their shoes. I went home and grabbed the first things I could find with some weight to them, my iron, a coffee mug, and a little statue of Elvis, and then I drove back to that whorehouse and smashed their windows out. She is my baby. I will return every night until she ends this. Lord Jesus will be on my side.”
“Tina, honey,” Alana said. Then Tina started crying and Alana said again, “Tina, honey.”
I didn’t like Tina joining us. To hell with her and her problems. It made me think of my own problems.
One night while I was in bed with Alana I heard some commotion out in the hallway. I was initially alarmed because brothels should be peaceful places by nature, but I thought to myself, to hell with that commotion, it makes me think of my own past commotions.
A moment later I heard the door open. A blonde woman entered the room. She was tall and attractive so I knew she didn’t belong here. She was holding a large black club like the ones the police carry, but I have never seen a police officer that looked like that.
“What the hell is going on?” I said to the woman.
She was not interested in small talk. Instead of answering my question, she attempted to strike at me with the club, but I rolled off the bed and the blow instead struck poor Alana’s face.
I stood and faced the beautiful villain. She had no way of knowing I was a black belt in judo. I was good. I once placed second in Junior Nationals, but I hadn’t competed in years. It was one of the things I gave up for my marriage.
“Honestly, grown men kicking and punching at each other,” my wife had said early in our marriage.
“Baby, it’s judo. There’s no punching or kicking. Just grappling. If you’d come watch sometime,”
“If I wanted to watch men ‘grapple,’” and she made those stupid quotation marks with her fingers when she said grapple. She would often make those stupid quotation marks with her fingers, even when it made no sense to do so. I’m going to the “bank.” We have “bills” to pay. But now she did it with the one thing I loved besides her. “If I wanted to watch men ‘grapple,’ it wouldn’t be you and your friends. It would be on a stage in Vegas.”
What could I say to that? So I said nothing.
“Why don’t you use all that extra testosterone to do something useful like build us a deck or fix all the leaky faucets in this piece-of-shit house?”
For one thing it’s because I had never built or fixed anything in my entire life. It’s funny how that sort of thing works. My hands are capable of applying perfect single-wing or ezekiel chokes, but worthless when holding a screwdriver or wrench. They aren’t transferable skills.
I gave up Judo, but never got those fucking faucets to stop leaking.
And though I hadn’t practiced judo in years, it all came back the moment the beautiful villain swung her club at me again. I stepped forward and caught her arm just below the elbow and wrapped my other arm around her waist and executed a near-perfect harai goshi and tossed her flat on her back. It was a beautiful throw. It would have received many oohs and ahhs from an audience in competition, but wouldn’t have scored a full point; I had been surprised by her lightness which caused me to lose my balance and fall to the ground as well, but this put me in a good position to apply a kesa gatame, a pinning technique. I have never struck a woman in my life, and wasn’t going to start, but in this position I would have the chance to reason with her and discover the meaning of her attack.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I said.
She said nothing.
“I swear to god, I will strangle you with your own arm if you don’t start talking.” I lied.
“Okay, okay. No reason to do anything rash.”
“Says the woman who hits people with clubs.”
“Yes, that is the nature of war, my friend. We came here to pay these bitches back. One of these used-up whores has been upsetting our business lately.”
A war between brothels. It made me wonder how things would have gone had I happened upon this other brothel first. Would this beautiful prostitute have joined me every morning for breakfast? If she had, would I have stupidly fallen in love?
I didn’t like the feeling of violence coupled with my nakedness. I was about to loosen my hold on this woman so I could check on my friend Alana, take her to the hospital if need be, but then another couple of fit-looking women came into the room. They were also armed with clubs and began beating me. I was being hit from all angles with clubs and shoes with pointed toes and tiny fists. I did my best to cover up, but I felt a warmth begin to envelope my head and a ringing in my ears. I felt weightless and wet as if underwater.
I awoke in the familiar bed I spent many half-hour increments in. Alana was sitting on the edge of the bed holding a sponge. I imagined she had been washing blood from my skin. She herself had a bandage above her eyebrow that went to her hairline.
“It is good to see your eyes open,” she said. “As you can imagine, we will not be taking any more customers tonight.”
“I’ll get dressed,” I said.
“No, you are fine here. You were never able to finish earlier. I owe you if you are feeling up to it.”
With the pounding I felt in my head, I couldn’t tell if sex would make it better or worse, but I told her I wasn’t up to it. I could tell in her eyes my decision made no difference to her. I was surprised to discover that I was disappointed that she wasn’t disappointed.
“Well, maybe you can cash it in some other time. There is always tomorrow.”
“I’ve been thinking that tomorrow I may take my friend Julian’s advice and check out some of those beaches.” This was a lie. I hadn’t been thinking that at all. It just came to me as I said it. But still, it sounded like something I may like to do.
“The salt water will be good for your wounds.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I should go.”
“Not yet,” she said. “Let me finish what I have started,” and she leaned in and began rubbing the sponge on my face.
Justin Herrmann’s fiction has appeared in River Styx, CutBank, Green Mountains Review, and other journals. His story collection Highway 1, Antarctica will be published by MadHat Press in 2014. He lives in Alaska.
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