Author's note: To Kait, whose kindness, friendship and intelligence proved inspirational.
Part I. New York
No, I had never actively sought a call girl before and it wasn't helping that she had to have rather special qualities. She had to be young, experienced, smart, and bisexual; a combination of features which excluded everyone I had stumbled across so far.
The outlandish idea was to use her life as a springboard, for a story that rolled to and fro through my brain's storybook almost daily. Frankly, I doubted I'd ever find her because the plot was all too complex, too full of nuance. Still all in all, I couldn't get it out of my mind.
Don't get me wrong, having lived in New York I knew there was no shortage of bisexual women. Once you placed an ad, they oozed from the woodwork. The hourly rate was an attraction no doubt, but I eventually came to realize I couldn't use an east coast girl; they didn't fit the strict outline I had conjured for the story's central character. The more I thought about it, the more I was drawn to a west coast setting. I needed something very different from what I was used to. But until I found the girl, the concept remained dormant; adrift amidst writer's block.
The book, if it ever matured into something readable, would be my twenty-first and I naturally wanted to hit the lofty promotional target my publisher set for me. But the problem with accomplishment is that it has so many components and its heights are often measured by standards which make little sense to anyone except the writer.
The pieces making up success don't always fit together coherently. I had learned, for example, that achievement and contentment don't necessarily go hand in hand. Having had three best-sellers, a movie option and an endorsement by Oprah, I practically possessed a license to print money. But all of this hadn't brought happiness. You see, in my case, although writing had always been a piece of my identity, it was never its cornerstone. Russell was.
We had met in English class and fell madly in love. His Grecian looks and muscular body, maintained through religious exercise, took me by storm and our saga was the talk of Roosevelt High.
The whole affair was deliciously lurid, sweltering really. I was so predictably typical in retrospect. Determined to keep him, I allowed him to finger me on our first date.
From there, it was a short hop to steamy nights where we hurriedly fumbled through mutual masturbation, oral sex and finally, we did it. Of course, I wouldn't swallow, despite his pleading, thinking that feat was a little something I should save for marriage.
Though separated by a short distance during our college years in upstate New York, I managed to find my way to him almost every weekend where I fucked like a wild woman.
Not allowing anyone else in my body, I saved myself just for him and abstained from the temptations of those definitive years. A major accomplishment by anyone's standard in this day and age.
And I not only saved myself for him, but I saved some of myself for later. No anal - well, all right, when he insisted I allowed him to insert a thumb - and still no swallowing. I know the latter rule survived only until the end of freshman year and I also know I said not until marriage but in the end, I caved. If I didn't do it, I reasoned, someone else would. I mean, just how does a girl make a cock her very own these days?
Silly me, while my friends were hooking up with whomever they pleased, I held back. Oddly, I wasn't envious of them, but did feel a bit out of place in the budding new world of female sexuality. My adorable roommate Kaitlin thought I was nuts, but supported me none the less.
Imagine the reaction of my girlfriends as I remained loyal to Russell through it all. To me, excluding all other men from my warm body was wonderfully romantic.
Soon after graduation we both took jobs in the city; he on Wall Street while I became an assistant editor at Elle. We had it all, or so it seemed.
But Russell grew restive and started working late, which, given the fiscal collapse after September 11 seemed understandable. The problem was, it continued thereafter, even as life in the financial district experienced rebirth. I knew something was up, especially since his sexual interest waned in inverse proportion to the rising markets. And then he just walked in one day and said, "I can't do this anymore."
"Can't do what?" I asked; a lightning chill ascending my spine.
"I can't be married, Heather. And I'm not going to argue or discuss it. I'm leaving." The explicitness in his voice left me frightened and collapsing inside.
Tossing a few things into a bag, he walked out of my life.
Not knowing what to do without him, I crashed into chaos.
Scurrying about the recesses of my mind like a cornered animal, I wrote -- then developed writer's block. I lost weight - not through choice, but bulimia, I cut my long red hair just above the shoulder because I thought it would look shoddy, and I broadcast depression. I was a mess.
And I shaved -- Yuk! Russell had always preferred me natural but I knew the world had changed and now at forty-one, I had to become a part of...well, something I was never a part of to begin with.
But even with my so called 'improvements,' I still found myself lost. I wandered aimlessly through a city which now felt foreign.
My editor, Peter Willett witnessed everything. Every single pathetic phase of my misery passed before his discerning eyes. A kind and patient man of sixty-two, he had proven a steadying hand in my life, certainly throughout my years of writing and even more so now that Russell was gone. But at a private meeting three weeks ago, he confronted me.
"You're crumbling Heather and I'm worried about you." His words burned into my mind. "It's showing in your writing, or I should say, in your failure to write. I can tell you're not eating properly, you've missed two deadlines for the Playgirl article and you're removed. Even from me."
I said nothing; just looked out the window and attempted a passive defense comprised of embarrassment and disturbance. From his twenty second floor office, so much a part of the vertical world of Manhattan, I could only see small slivers of blue between concrete and glass skyscrapers.
"Heather, are you listening to me? Without waiting for a response, he continued. "I'm going to lose you if you can't break away from your own past. It's been a year. It's over with Russell and it's time you dealt with it."
The harsh abruptness of his verbal mugging startled me. Peter had always been such a gentleman.
I hastily stood, pacing his office. It was a small place and my long legs made it feel even smaller. I felt pent up, frustrated.
Then I struck back. "It's not over!" I shouted in my most threatening tone, wanting to attack him for having the impudence to be honest. Collapsing back in my seat and fighting back tears, I put my head in my hands.
"He'll be back goddam it; I know he will, Peter. Why are you doing this to me?"
"I'm not doing it to you Heather, Russell is. And I'm raising these concerns because it's the truth and because I'm worried about you, and..." He passed a deep breath, and when he spoke he drove the final stake of despair into my heart. "...because I saw Russ last week and he was with that awful woman, Allison...something. You know... I'm not stupid Heather, they're serious and he's been seeing her for some time. Come on honey, if you're not realistic about this, your life will remain stuck in a world that's gone now."
"Fuck you Peter," I spat. Picking up my laptop and jacket, I stormed out and left the building. I trudged aimlessly, sobbing through midtown for the next hour. He was right and I knew it. Being so lonely in a place where there are a hundred thousand people per block only made it worse. Alone - such irony.
With sore feet, smeared makeup and the remnants of my spirit dragging behind me like damaged airport luggage, I shamefacedly returned to Peter's office.
Of all things, he was happy to see me; clearly my words hadn't affected the unconditional love embedded in our long friendship. He was such a patient man and I was such a bitch. I'd have felt better had he screamed at me.
"I'm so sorry Peter, I..."
"Stop," he interrupted. "There's no need for that. It was something we both had to do. I'm just worried, that's all. I'm afraid for you. Can you understand that?"
"Of course," I said. Then, admitting the self-evident, I blurted out a decision made weeks earlier. "I have to get out of here Peter. I have to leave New York. I'm going to work on that project I told you about."
Even though he represented dozens of other authors he immediately recalled the shadowy scheme I was alluding to. "The one about the girl, you mean?"
"...the bisexual, yes."
"But you don't know who she is," he ventured, a look of utter discouragement on his handsome face.
Assuming he probably thought I was about to run off on a wild goose chase, I responded, "I know that Peter. I'll go to San Francisco. My hunt may not end there but it's as good a place to begin looking for her as any. I need to be away right now and I want to find a woman, a young woman - one who lives a life contradicting my own - my opposite. If I can find her, the rest will fall into place and I'll be able to write my book. I just know it."
Probing, Peter explored further. "Tell me again, what you want to accomplish, thematically I mean."
Reflecting momentarily on my years in college, on my years of waiting and denying myself, I said, "I want to find a girl who doesn't need men. I don't care if she likes men - I just want her to be as free of them as she chooses. She has to be young, beautiful and openly sexual. I have to..."
"You have to get into her head to learn what the world looks like through her eyes. Yes, I understand. But Heather, I have a question. In principle, I like the idea. It's fresh and will sell to a public interested in what motivates such a person."
Here it comes, I thought.
"But in the past, you've been able to stand off to one side of your subject - objectively looking in. Given your emotional state, is that realistic now? What if you don't find a willing participant? If she doesn't even exist, you might be compelled to make her up. I understand you well enough to know you'll view your own work as a haunting literary corruption. "
"Think about the risks," he continued. "If you can find her, you will be asking a woman -- a woman you don't know - to reveal her innermost thoughts to you. It's a long shot. If she doesn't materialize, will your disappointment simply contribute to your current path to emotional collapse? Do you see where I'm going with this? I don't think you should be looking at the project as some sort of therapeutic resolution to the Russell problem. It has to stand on its own merits Heather."
"I realize that Peter. Trust me, it's not a crutch. It's something I've been thinking of doing for a long time. A thought I've had since I started writing really, and I just never found her. I'm too wrapped up in New York and different surroundings will resolve that. Believe me, I can do this."
Though skeptical, he didn't know what else to do with me.
"I'll be gone a year and have saved enough from previous book sales to get by," I added. "I'll stay in touch with you, but probably not much. I need some time..."
"I understand," he murmured. "Do what you think is best."
The thought suddenly struck me that Peter seemed to be battling with something in his own mind.
"Heather, I have something to explain to you." His entire demeanor changed in an instant, from one of caring friend to that of stern and unyielding father.
"I'm going to disclose something to you and...well..."
"Don't keep me in suspense Peter; tell me."
"There's a woman I know. I mean, who I've been seeing during business trips."
It occurred to me that in my own selfish preoccupation I had paid little attention to Peter's needs, even though he treated me like his own daughter. I knew almost nothing of his private life, though I had known Margaret, his gracious wife of thirty years, before she tragically succumbed to ovarian cancer.
"Peter, tell me. Who is she?"
"I've grown lonely Heather, more so than I've ever let on. I met her in Seattle but have seen her in various places, for weekends sometimes."
"Oh Peter, that's wonderful," I said, rising to give him a hug. Then, holding him at arm's length and feeling like a broken record, I repeated my question, "Who is she?"
Turning away from me, he spoke swiftly, unveiling Laya, a twenty-one year old escort he had started seeing the previous year. To prevent myself from falling over in shock I slowly and without taking my eyes from his, sat back in my chair.
"She's everything you've described. It's almost too much to comprehend but given the story you want to write, her age, her physical beauty, her occupation and skill as a communicator, she'd be someone I'd want you to meet."
Momentarily stuck on stupid, I kept repeating, "A call girl...you're seeing a call girl..."
"Heather, please don't judge me. When I was married I never touched another woman. Margaret was my world. Then she died and I was left alone. During a visit to see Justin in Seattle last year, I met a cocktail waitress at a hotel bar and she was nice to me. She listened and promised to sit with me when her shift ended. We talked for a long time; about everything. She cleared my mind of anxiety and soon after...well, you can imagine the rest."
Pulling my fragmented senses together, I took a deep breath and said, "Peter, I understand loneliness. Is Laya...?"
"A lesbian? She says she is but she may have done that because men fantasize about such things. I like her though, and trust her enough to say, yes, I think she's probably leveling with me; it's likely she is a lesbian. She's also smart and very sexual..."
"Sexual? How so? Is she any different from what you might expect of a typical prostitute?"
"Oh, she's not a prostitute or at least I've never thought of her that way. And maybe this is just a naïve aging man talking, but this girl is special. Let me give you an example. I apologize; I know I've never spoken of such things with you before and I..."
"Don't apologize Peter; just tell me about her."
"Well, that evening, after finishing at the bar we moved to a booth and as she sat down she worked her panties off and slipped them across the table to me. Every muscle in my body became rejuvenated. It's been a long time since I was 'out there' Heather and she really threw me. I've been seeing her ever since. Would you like me to arrange a meeting?"
Part II: Seattle
After landing I spent the day getting oriented to my novel surroundings. In my hotel room acting on blind faith in Peter, I organized questions for my first meeting with Laya. He believed she'd be perfect for my story, and I hoped to spend a lot of time with her, infiltrating her alien world.
While still in his office in New York, Peter had called the mystery woman. Though he had cradled the earpiece so I didn't hear her voice, I knew she was agreeable. He later told me where to meet her and described her look. His words were all I had to go on, saying 'She'll dress provocatively and will stand out in public. If she walks in, you'll know it - she shows more than most women.'
Thinking that final comment was probably a reflection of Peter's age, I had listened carefully as he explained my appearance to her and assumed finding one another at the little restaurant shouldn't present a problem.
Calculating a bit, I decided to arrive at the Fish'n Chips shop on Pier 59 in Seattle before time so I could watch the door and scrutinize her. Walking in, I paused for a moment, waiting for my sunglasses to adjust in the dimness. More than ready, I carried a leather tote on my shoulder, containing laptop and organizers.
My red hair, sun-baked from the walk down the busy pier, was hot against my cheeks. It had only taken a minute of being outside of my air conditioned rental to realize I was over-dressed. The double button navy jacket was the first to go. At least my collared shirt was white.
Having packed only skirts was something I began to view as a minor blessing. The floor was slatted pine and it clacked under my modest heels as I walked. We were due to meet at eleven; so I took a seat in a booth facing the door. It was an old trick I used to keep a new subject a little off balance.
After ordering an iced tea I took out my notepad, one hair clip and an elastic band. It took only twenty-eight seconds to pull my hair up into a modest French twist; a personal best. I hoped it wouldn't be my only achievement of the day.
Eleven o'clock came and went. Laya didn't show. Repeatedly waving off the waiter who tried to bring me a menu, I allowed for an additional fifteen minutes before I began to fidget. Not knowing how long Laya was going to keep me waiting, I phoned Peter.
He was just getting ready to meet with a client but took my call none the less. He was surprised Laya hadn't shown. "She's always so punctual," he remarked.
"I've been sitting here for awhile, Peter. Maybe I should try to call her directly."
"You can't do that Heather," he reluctantly responded. "Laya made it clear; you were not to have her number until she knew whether you and she could work together. I'm sure she'll be there."
"I'll give it another half hour," I told him. "Then I'll start searching for someone else; this time on my own."
I hung up.
My eyes scanned the little place. Now past 11:15, it was getting busy. A woman wandered in. Young, pretty and wearing a string bikini top under a see-through white t-shirt, I began to rise as she approached. But she walked by, greeting a man waiting two booths back. "Shit," I thought. "She's not going to show, I just know it."
Several couples walked in, some had little children with them. No way.
"You're Heather, aren't you?" The voice of a young woman came from the booth directly behind me. Turning, I saw her half-smiling, flirtatious half-smile.
Rising from her seat, she stepped toward me.
Damn it, I thought, this fucking bitch has been here all along. She watched when I arrived and had, by the way she dressed, tricked me into overlooking her as just another businesswoman at lunch. She was smart.
I began to rise, extending my hand in greeting.
"Please, don't get up," she offered, a subtle look of triumphant satisfaction on her face. "I'm Laya."
"Yes...I figured that. Why didn't..."
"I had to decide whether to show myself to you first. I hope you won't be mad at me. A girl has to be careful you know."
Laya sat down at my booth, smoothly sliding one bare leg over the other. She wasn't dressed at all like Peter had described. The hem of her one-piece jumper skirt was ruffled and short, but not extremely so. It was made of spotless white fabric and the straps crossing her shoulders and chest created a deep V that would have revealed a lot of skin, were it not for the short sleeved blouse she wore underneath.
Surprisingly modest, she didn't even have the buttons undone and the dress displayed a slight metallic shimmer that seemed to add to her radiance.
Her lipstick was just the right shade of red, and it glistened wetly. Her hair was dark, nearing black, which, like the rest of her, shocked me. I had expected a tasteless blond, or at least a fake one. She was challenging my stereotypes.
Stating the obvious, I remarked, "You don't look..."
"I know," Laya said. Her voice was sweet and youthful. "That's the idea. I figured Peter told you how I usually dressed and didn't want to reveal myself until I was ready. But you look okay."