Before we discuss price, a few words about my girlfriend Laura. She’s my ex-girlfriend, really, but I hate the word. I don’t like girlfriend either, but sweetheart is silly, lover is presumptuous, significant other is mechanical, and lady, at least according to my experience, is unlikely.
It might be best to simply call Laura my lost girl. With her knee-high socks, her baby t-shirts, the ceramic ladybug barrette twinkling above her temple, a girl is exactly what she tries to be. It’s a faithful disguise: sneakers instead of high heels, silver fingernail glitter — even, on occasion, the cheap theatricality of a lollipop.
Laura’s earnest girlishness may come from the knowledge that, when it comes to beauty, she’s an anachronism. No matter that her friends praise her cherubic 19th century features, she’s acutely aware of the exasperating curviness that haunted her from fifteen, when her body thoughtlessly exploded, and the many childish ornaments are, perhaps, an attempt to return to the invisibility of girlhood. Whether she recognizes the collision of sympathy and malice in the words of her friends, women skinny enough to slip between the slats of a picket fence, it’s hard to say.
I was Laura’s rebuttal: a fair-skinned, blue-eyed retort. The fact that I knew this made me even more desirable. I’m not sure at what age we no longer want a shy, nervous mate, uncertain of his or her appeal, offering conversational or sexual gems only, as it were, by accident, but Laura had passed this stage by the time she glimpsed me in the street and with a raised eyebrow set me in a U-turn. She spun to face me before I had even tapped her shoulder. There was a green glow-in-the-dark band-aid wrapped around her little finger, the ends overlapping just above the eclipsed moon of her fingernail, and while we spoke she picked at it. We were standing beside a pharmacy splashed with giddy coils of spray paint. I asked whether anyone had ever written graffiti about her. She scratched her nose. “I hope so,” she said.
It was an easy beginning, and an effortless courtship. In Manhattan you trade apartment space for swift erotic acceleration. After three months of enthusiastic sex, we began to smack the word love around like agitated badminton players. Two months later, she bullied her way into my one-bedroom apartment. Two months after that I purchased her friend.
When I first brought up the idea to Susan she laughed. It wasn’t a very funny suggestion, but Susan is dependably capricious. It’s part of her appeal. Hers was a strange erratic laugh, and after a few seconds I recognized it, even stranger, as the sound my sister made when she was two years old and I taught her how to use a straw and milk erupted onto mother’s tablecloth.
“You want to buy me,” Susan said. We were riding a ski lift in northern Vermont and icicles had frozen all along the branches of the trees like unreachable piano keys.
“Isn’t there a euphemism we could use?” I said.
“That is the euphemism. How much are you offering?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder. Laura, seated in the chairlift behind us, waved her red mitten.
“Two hundred,” I said.
“Two hundred dollars,” she said.
“You’re not interested.”
“I think I’m insulted.” Susan unscrewed a canister and dabbed on lip gloss with the tip of her bare ring finger.
I cleared my throat. “Whatever you may have heard from Laura, I don’t have access to my mother’s money.”
“Of course you do. You don’t have a job.”
“I’m a consultant.”
“Who do you consult with, Charlie? What do you consult on?”
“What kind of systems?”
“All kinds. But let’s not talk about work. Didn’t we come here to get away–”
“From it all,” she said. “Five thousand dollars. That’s a number I find interesting.”
“Oh it’s interesting,” I nodded. “But we’re looking for realistic. Five thousand is impossible. Let’s consider the market. It’s soft. It’s a buyer’s market.”
“We aren’t talking about the market,” she said. “We’re talking about me. Right?”
“Right,” I said. “But still, five is. . .”
I gestured for the canister of lip gloss. Susan handed it to me.
“It’s easier if you take your gloves off,” she said.
I removed my gloves and trapped them between my legs. With my thumb I dipped into the gloss and smeared it against my mouth. It felt as if another pair of lips, ghostly and warm, had affixed itself to mine.
“Peaches,” I said, pursing my lips.
Susan took the gloss from me. “Four thousand,” she said.
I shook my head. “Four hundred.”
Susan sighed. “Call me old fashioned,” she said, and slid her mitten onto my knee, “but there’s just something romantic about three zeroes.”
The bulk of my ski jacket obscured her hand from view. In the snowy hush of the mountain I listened to the zip of synthetics on synthetics. We were impossibly wrapped, waterproof and windproof, but I felt, somehow, every press of her finger, and if I held my breath I was sure I could distinguish the subtleties of her fingerprints against my skin.
“Five hundred,” I exhaled.
She flipped her dark hair across her shoulder.
“Twenty-five hundred. We’re talking about one of my friends.”
“It’s America,” I said. “Betrayal is an inexpensive commodity.”
“But this is quality betrayal,” she said, and removed her hand from my knee. “Quality costs.”
“Six hundred,” I said. “That’s my final offer. Or nine hundred for two nights. Just think how many times you’ve given it away for free.”
Her dark eyelashes blinked at me. Pale heat was streaming from her mouth and disappearing into the sky.
“Put your gloves back on,” she said.
I’d thought it was over, an unsatisfied yet harmless suggestion, but when Laura met us at the top of the mountain and asked us, innocently, what we’d talked about, Susan explained that we had been discussing the price I would pay for her sexual favors. I dropped to the ground and flailed out a snow angel, pursuing an insanity defense.
“What did he offer you?” Laura said. “Five bucks?”
Susan laughed sharply and took off along the trail. I snapped my skis on to follow her but halted when Laura placed a big red mitten against my forearm. “That was tacky,” she said. “You know she’s sensitive about being single. This was supposed to be a couples trip.”
I didn’t share another ski lift with Susan that day; she didn’t say a word to me until late afternoon, while I was loading the skis onto the roof rack and the girls huddled in the car warming their feet against the black plastic heating vents. Susan stepped outside to get the lip gloss from her ski bag, lodged in the trunk, and on returning she paused at my ear, the way I had paused at Laura’s on the street months earlier, and whispered, “One thousand for two nights. If I come, nine hundred.”
Modern life is about convenience, and there’s nothing as inconvenient as an affair. Even two minor trysts can challenge a person whose actions are accounted for in the habitual structure of daily routine.
Fortunately, Susan and I spent our first night during the ski weekend. After a stop at the bed and breakfast for a hot shower and change of clothes, the three of us drove to a local bar, a dark hall with a country jukebox and drinks served without coasters. The fire from the fireplace reflected against the glass eyes of the animal heads posted to the wall. The oak tables shone with spilled beer. It was a shabby place with the peculiar charm neglect can bring. I ordered drinks from a bartender with a head like a pumpkin and waited for Laura to invigorate the conversation.
Thanks to her job at a style magazine, she was always discussing something on the cusp of popularity, living in a conversational time warp six weeks ahead of print. But the rustic setting inspired Laura to reminisce about her childhood instead, spent in the drowsy town of Gloucester. It was tiresome listening to her sentimentalize what sounded like squalor and boredom. At nineteen she had smuggled herself into Manhattan to become a fashion designer, briefly studied at FIT before a string of jobs at fashion magazines, where she had meticulously exorcised the small-town dreariness that she now, suddenly, cherished. It was a maudlin exhibition, with the ghost of her fisherman father a gloomy fourth to our threesome, so I excused myself to the bathroom.
Where the bar itself was huge and warm and wooden, the bathroom was a small, stone dungeon, reeking of sulfur, and littered with tiny puddles like thumbtacks. Holding my breath, I washed my hands in the cracked sink. A man came in. “Nice work,” he said, and poked his finger through a spider web hanging above the door. I assumed he was congratulating me on being the first person ever to wash his hands in that bathroom, until he asked, “Those girls yours?”
I dried my hands with a paper towel and glanced at him: tall, broad shoulders, dark eyes. The local Lothario. I nodded.
“Both of them?” he said.
“Yeah.” I tossed the paper towel at the trash. It bounced off the aluminum rim and landed at my feet. I wondered whether I had to pick it up, but after a few seconds it was too late, so I stepped on it.
“You gotta tell me how you do it,” the man said, following me out the door. I stopped by the blue public telephone, about fifteen feet from the girls, and he stopped too. I could smell him in the space around me, musty and spoiled as wet leaves in a roof gutter.
“I’m Jake,” he said.
“You’re following me, Jake.”
“I just want to hear about your technique,” he said, and smiled.
“There’s no technique.”
“Sure there is. You don’t have to be shy about it.”
“They’re paid for,” I said, and walked away.
Besides Jake, who soon left the bar, there wasn’t much competition for Susan’s attention. Occasionally someone would wander over and ask her to dance — a space had been cleared by the jukebox, where a few couples swayed alongside a solitary man in black jeans with over-polished moves and what may have been low-grade epilepsy — but Susan never accepted. Meanwhile, I steadily intoxicated Laura, who eventually passed out in the booth.
“I think she’s asleep,” I said.
“That’s one word for it,” Susan said.
I bought Susan another gin and tonic. She chewed the ice staring at me. After a second drink I said, “We should go home,” and Susan’s mouth did something hard to qualify, maybe a smile.
I carried Laura to the car and drove the three of us back to the bed and breakfast. I undressed Laura and tucked her in, with a pillow placed between her knees — it’s how she likes to sleep. Then I brushed my teeth, checked my hair, and knocked on the connecting door. Susan opened it.
“Where do you carry your wallet if you’re not wearing pants,” she said.
“Whisper,” I said, and handed it to her.
However hasty, careless, even reckless the agreement was, the sex itself was spectacularly thoughtful. That had something to do, I think, with the righteousness of a covenant. Bound in a contract, Susan was freed from any dull ideas like guilt. It was betrayal with a built-in terminus, ideal for both of us, considering that the ending is the hardest part of most erotic distractions. But beyond speculation about motivation and psychology, there was the simple wonder of bodies coming together, those astonishingly sincere points of contact, the press of a palm on a lower back, the clumsy weight of a thigh, the wet lips behind the ear, the clasp of a hand around a neck so tight that you’ve forgotten whose hand, and whose neck.
The next morning, I studied Laura as she stumbled, bleary and hungover, through breakfast. Did she suspect anything? Was she pretending to be unaware? I hadn’t climbed into bed until five in the morning and I hadn’t showered; I could still smell Susan on my hands. But watching Laura place her spoon beside the cereal bowl as quietly as possible, I knew that she didn’t suspect a thing. It wasn’t because she was imperceptive, or stupid — she’s neither — but because it was too obvious, and if we had been older, if we hadn’t been children in our early twenties still trying to reconcile our naive ideals with the cruelty of empiricism, then Laura would have latched on to the obviousness of my desire from the start, instead of misinterpreting it as a tactless poke at Susan’s singlehood. The older we get the less we ruin our lives with forgiving interpretations and learn to take facts as facts. For all the fun that brings.
Susan, to her credit, helped the deception along by providing herself with an alibi for the night. The only believable alibis are embarrassing alibis, so Susan told us a story of going out for a drive with a man from the bar who, when they stopped at his house, had told her to be quiet and not to wake his mom. They had tiptoed to his bedroom, where she had asked him to wait while she went to the bathroom — “Don’t flush,” he warned — and she had snuck down the stairs and past his mother, asleep on the floral print couch. Then she had walked two miles back to the bed and breakfast, with her feet raw from the cold, watching as bats slid in and out of the trees.
“You poor girl,” Laura said, patting Susan’s hand, and suggested that Susan stick to looking for men in the city, however impossible a task she might have found it to be.
There almost was no second night with Susan. It had something to do with ethics, I think. Like most people, Susan could treat an isolated incident as an ethical exception, while a repeat occurrence smacked of disposition, or meaning, or design — or some other unwieldy cover for self-interest. But I had contracted for two nights and I expected them both, and after talking Susan into meeting me for dinner, I told Laura I was going to visit Alex — a friend who would be amazed at the amount of time we spent together, as he lived more in my world of alibi than anywhere else — and I took a cab uptown.
The doorman buzzed Susan’s apartment and told me that she would be down in a few minutes. I nodded and leaned against the desk, trying to decipher the doorman’s accent. Mexican? Brazilian? In the long gilded mirror spanning the foyer I could see that he was, in fact, very short, and behind the desk he was standing on a box painted the greyish tint of the marble floor.
The elevator chimed and two girls in long white dresses walked out. They held their shoulders straight, like dancers, but there was an undisguisable absence of grace that youth carries with it, a clumsiness that simply can’t be eradicated by anything except time. The girls reminded me of Laura, of course, of what Laura wanted to be, and with a sudden heaviness — I felt, if it’s possible, a little like the mysterious grey box on which the doorman was standing — I watched the girls slip inside the revolving door, and vanish into the expensive skin of the city.
“Pretty ladies,” the doorman said to me.
“Girls,” I said.
“But too skinny,” he sighed. “Skinny as candle.”
I didn’t reply, just waited for Susan, who soon arrived in a short black skirt and a new haircut. She kissed me quickly on the lips and ducked into the revolving door.
“Susan,” I said.
“What?” She was struggling with the door, which wouldn’t budge. I had trapped it with my left foot, lodged in the compartment behind her.
“Dinner’s off,” I said. ” We’re going straight upstairs.”
“But we have reservations,” she said.
“This isn’t a date.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “The door. . . ”
“It’s business. Remember?”
She stopped pushing. Her arms fell to her sides. I could see the smudges on the glass from where her hands had been pressing, and heat had left her.
We rode the elevator in silence. I followed Susan into her apartment, then her bedroom. She undressed and lay on the bed. It was frustrating to find Susan so inert, compared to her earlier enthusiasm. It was like trying to start an old lawnmower, yanking again and again on the cord, hoping it isn’t broken. But when she pushed back from the headboard — shoving fiercely, insistently against me, as when she had been trapped inside the revolving door — I caught something in her eyes, a flash of contempt that was, in its way, as passionate as lust, and broken or not, I chased it.
It still surprises me that Susan never betrayed me to Laura. Maybe there had been something between us, something unfeigned among the many faces of cruelty and exchange. Or maybe she just didn’t have enough time, because only a month after the ski trip Laura discovered it on her own.
It was a warm cloudless night in March when I came home to find Laura sitting crosslegged on the couch in the dark. She was dressed, as usual, in an outfit capable of arousing all the closet pedophiliacs in the tri-state area, but wearing an uncharacteristically adult frown. Without saying hello, she clambered off the couch and pressed a bank statement into my hands.
“The lights are off,” I said stupidly.
Laura swatted the switch and then pointed at the third page. It was a copy of all the checks I had written in February. On the memo section of my check to Susan — I had forgotten to bring cash to her apartment — I had scribbled re: superior prostitution services, 2nd payment.
There are all kinds of silence I’m familiar with, but this was a new kind. Laura’s adolescent garrulousness had vanished, my evasive justifications were inaccessible, even the Sharper Image aromatherapy humidifier in the corner of our apartment — my apartment– had ceased its soothing whisper. It was quietly, quietly awful. Laura carried the telephone into the bedroom and shut the door.
Her dresser was in the living room, beside the television. I opened the drawers and took out her clothing. I folded the little t-shirts and shorts, lay them on the couch. Then I removed her underwear and socks and lay them on the couch, too. Each tiny bright item of clothing was like a piece of candy. I could taste the lemon kiss of her yellow tank top. The mint of her pale green stockings. The strawberry rasp of a thin pink blouse and the chewy caramel swirl of a tan skirt. I scooped up a soft red sweater and pressed it to my face, inhaling cinnamon with its careless comfort, and I thought, This must be love, who would have guessed it, I’ve discovered love in the alembic of human slavery, and then the bedroom door opened and Laura walked out with the telephone dangling between her fingers.
“How much!” she screamed.
“How much what?” I said quietly.
“How much would you pay for me!”
What do you say? What is the price of love?