A few minutes later, we made love. I suppose, more honestly, we fucked. The difference is clear enough to me in the abstract, but in the concrete moment of encounter it blurs. I amused myself, lately, by trying to sort the woman's honest pleasure from her rote reactions to the same plunge and twist the last man offered. I was becoming confident that I could. Long ago, I had devised my own rules for validating my lover's orgasmcertain physiological reactions that could hardly be faked, like cold lips, goosebumps on the base of the spine. Elise did something that charmed me. She made none of the melodramatic sounds of faked orgasms; she pushed against me with the determination of bucking horse and dragged my orgasm from me and then, while I receded mentally from the battle, rode on, pushing, pushing, and finally, with a dark growl of satisfaction, she came with a chaotic, rhythmic pulse of her vaginal muscles that I could not imagine she had faked.
We lay together for more than a minute, catching our breath. I got up then and began to dress. She wiped wet hair from her forehead and glanced at the clock on her dresser. My hour wasn't up. I had my pants on; I shrugged into my shirt.
"How long do you think you'll do this for a living?" I asked.
"A living? This is a hobby," she said. She was sitting on her haunches on the bed, naked, eying me warily. "Why?"
"Maybe Ellen told you," I said, buttoning my sleeves and watching her watch me, "I'm interested in prostitution. From the woman's point of view. I'm a writer."
"Yeah? I had a boyfriend in the writing program at the University of New Mexico."
I sat in the recliner again. "I wonder why women do this. I suppose you've heard all the things that people assumeit's what a woman does when she's hit bottom and can't do anything else; or she's a nymphomaniac, whatever that is, or a victim of abuse."
Elise was brown with southwestern tan; a triangle of startling white skin framed each nipple, and a stripe of pale skin crossed the tops of her thighs like a white belt. She ran her thumbs through her hair, pushing it away from her shoulders. She didn't say anything; she glanced again at the clock. Her perogative. She was pleasant in bed, athletic rather than melodramatically aroused. She had moved beneath me with the abstracted engagement of a dancer.
"That's not what I'm finding when I talk to women who are in the trade," I said. "There's a lot of that, of course. Girls who like sex, girls who arrived in Reno or Las Vegas with no money, girls who have some sort of psychological agenda they're working through, girls whose boyfriends have conned them into turning tricks as favors to their friends or for easy money. But not always."
"I do it because it's easy money."
"How is it easy money? Is it easy work physically? Is that what you mean? Isn't it rough psychologically?"
"How?" She got up and took the peignoir off a chair by the bed. Then she met my eyes and put it down. I had stepped into a dancers' dressing room by accident once, looking for the men's room in a small theater. There were two naked women in the room, along with others in various states of undress; they reacted with surprise but not shock. Elise had that air of unconscious nudity about her. It was if she had to remind herself that she was good to look at. I liked her body aesthetically, I found myself thinking. "It's OK," I said. "Thanks." I watched her slip into the robe with unconscious grace; I didn't speak again until she had the sheer garment wrapped around her.
"Well, I mean things like being sexy for a guy who doesn't turn you on, for example," I said as she tied the sash of the peignoir.
She smiled. "You turn me on, honey."
"No, I'm serious. Even if you aren't just being polite, there have to be guys you don't want to screw, but you have to. Doesn't that bother you?"
"Sometimes," she said reluctantly. "So what?"
"How long have you been turning tricks?"
She glanced at the door and then again at the dresser. "Look, I don't know if I want to talk about this stuff with you. You're supposed to split after we're done. You understand. If Luke hears about this, he'll be pissed."
"I paid for the hour. Look, I've been interviewing girls for a book I'm working on. If you check with Ellen, she'll tell you this is true. If you'd be willing to talk outside work, I'll pay for your time."
"Twenty bucks an hour."
"That's not much."
"It's pretty good for just talking. And it's all yours, because it's consulting money. No sex."
She walked up to me, standing too close, and leaned her soft body against me, slipping her fingers down my pants so she held my belt in a gentle grip.
"How about we just go another round now, and we talk while we're doing it? For fifty, you talk, and I'll show you what my mouth is good for."
"I'm fine. We're done. Are you interested or not?"
"I'd rather fuck for fifty." One of her fingers had reached my pubic hair.
"OK. If you change your mind, tell Ellen. She knows how to reach me if you ask her."
"Look, don't go away mad." She had her other hand on the outside of my pants, kneading my groin. I was tempted, and my body responded tentatively, but the edge was gone; I felt sated.
"I'm not mad," I said. "I enjoyed it. I'm not interested in sex right now." I put a tip on the dresser next to the upfront money and left. Elise threw a satin robe over the peignoir and walked down the hall with me. I put an arm around her waist to see how it felt. Her waist was hard and trim; the soft muscle of her thigh was more inviting.
"Hey, honey. I'll think about it," she said at the door.
After talking to Elise, I was more sure that I wouldn't find a woman at the brothel who'd work out for what I had in mind. "They're too businesslike," I said to Ellen later that evening. "The ones who've just started still think they're having a scandalous adventure or they're going to get rich, or they think I'm some kind of weirdo. The ones who've gotten tired of it are bored with any men they've screwed or desperate to get something steady and permanent going."
"Actually, Elise asked me about you," she said. "I told her what you have in mind, and she wants to talk to you tomorrow. I said it's OK. I'll take care of Luke."
I was surprised. I arranged to meet her for a late breakfast. In the morning light she looked younger and less sure of herself. She ordered pancakes. I watched her cut them into neat squares with a knife. After a few mouthfuls, she said, "I talked to a couple of the girls about you."
"You understand I'm just talking to people; I'm not ready to actually hire someone. But I'm going to pay you for your time today, like I promised."
"Sure. Hey, that tough stuff is for the joint. I hated to be like that, but some of the girls think Luke's got the rooms bugged."
It hadn't seemed all that tough to me; she scored points. "Probably," I said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he's got hidden cameras."
"Ellen wouldn't go for that."
No, I thought. "Ellen's a good person. She got me interested in prostitutes. I'll probably dedicate the book to her."
"That's a nice present," Elise said wistfully. Then she worked on the pancakes some more.
"Tell me about yourself," I said.
"Well, what would you like to know? I'm twenty-two, single and unattached. No kids, never married, no big brother to come looking for me. My mom and dad are retired in Arizona."
"What do you read?"
"Read?" The fork stopped in midair. Then she grinned and took her bite. "Right. You're a writer. Well, Brad, that's the guy at UNM, he turned me on to Raymond Carver and Louis Borges. I liked them. He wanted me to read some guy named Barthelme, and John Hawkes. Hawkes made me puke. You don't write that kind of shit, I hope?"
"No. Are you reading anything now?"
"Polar Star." It had just come out in paperback. She added, defensively, "I like the Russian stuff."
"OK. What radio station do you listen to?"
"Radio's pretty shitty out here. I have a cassette player." She waited, then formulated the next question. "U2. Gary Numan. Stewart Copeland. David Bowie and Lou Reed."
"I guess. I like some old stuff, too. Stones, Yardbirds, Spencer Davis, Derek and the Dominoes, Ten Years After, like that."
I thought, Like what? It was a Whitman Sampler of sixties rock, maybe memorized for my benefit. "Who's Derek and the Dominoes?"
"Eric Clapton's old group. Before Cream." She smiled as if reading my mind. "And Stevie Winwood was the lead singer for Spencer Davis. And the Yardbirds were"
"All right, all right," I said. "I apologize!"
We both laughed. She had a pleasant laugh. It came from her chest and had no element of polite control in it. It was a generous sound, with a musical quality. She had come to breakfast wearing blue jeans and flats and a low-cut pullover with no bra. Her neck had the muscular delicacy of a horse's, not so much corded as full, firm. She swallowed and I met her eyes. They were a brown so rich they looked, in restaurant light, almost violet. She was watching me with a kind of pride in her face, the look a woman has when she thinks she's caught you looking at her breasts and she likes the idea. I smiled. Her nose was long for a woman and her lips were dark, almost liver-colored, and full-formed, inviting when she smiled sincerely, unconsciously.
"Here's what I have in mind. The woman I hire would live with me. She'd have a private area, two rooms with a minimal kitchena hot plate and a little fridgeand a private bathroom. But no bedroom; she'd sleep with me."
"You want it every night," she said with a mocking expression.
"No. It's pernicious the way we've turned the phrase 'sleep together' into a synonym for sex. I mean she would sleep with me, regardless of the evening's sexual events. I'm not buying a vagina; I'm hiring a wife."
She made a face, reacting a little to my crude phrase. She was looking at her food. While I talked, she finished the pancakes. The waitress brought more coffee.
"She would be my companion at social events. People who saw us would assume we were living together, which would, of course, be true."
She sat back in her chair, a hand on her coffee. She had stopped flirting with me, which I took to mean that she was listening seriously.
"She would have a monthly income, like an allowance but actually wages. She would not be expected to keep house, but we would share some household activities, like cooking."
"I like to cook."
"Me too. Now, tell me what you'd do during the days while I was working."
"Recover my strength?" she said with a sly smile. Then she stopped playing again. "Just kidding. Watch TV. Read. I really do like to read." She thought. "Do you keep a garden?"
"I have a green thumb."
She held up a cocked thumb, grinning like a returned astronaut. I smiled again. I was beginning to like the idea.
We talked for another half hour, then she suggested we go for a walk. We walked downtown; she draped an arm through mine and we windowshopped. She admired a pair of turquoise earrings, and I bought them for her. She did not protest but thanked me graciously. After an hour of drifting, we returned to the motel. She was holding my hand as we walked. She had a younger brother, in high school in Tucson. He was a wide receiver and a sure thing for a football scholarship. When we arrived at the side of the motel and began walking along the fronts of the rooms, she said, "You owe me fifty dollars for two and a half hours. For another twenty, we can spend an hour in your room and I'll take you 'round the world. Saturday morning blue light special."
I was tempted. "You'll get in trouble with Luke."
"Who'll know, lover?"
I didn't want to have secrets from Ellen. If I told her we hadn't made love, and it was true, she'd believe me. Luke might not, and he would make trouble. If he did, she'd defend Elise.
"I'll be back next week. If you're available, I'll take a raincheck at the house."
"It's three hundred at the house."
I laughed, and she smiled. We had stopped at the restaurant door. "Those are precious minutes," I said.
"You get what you pay for," she said with a grin.
"You're the first woman I've considered seriously," I said, changing the subject. "Are you interested?"
"Let me think about it," she said. "You're a nice guy, and fun, for a college professor. I don't know yet."
"That's OK. I'll be back for that raincheck, but I think we'll stick with the economy package, strictly missionary."
"I'll bet you do know what you're missing," she said archly.
"Oh yeah. But I'd feel awfully silly afterwards, shelling out three hundred dollars for an hour of anything. Even you," I added. I had separated the fifty from my cash while we were buying the earrings; I had it in a roll, two twenties and a ten, that I could get out of my pocket without looking at it. I gave her the money discreetly.
She pecked my cheek, slipping the flat stick of bills into her own pocket. "I won't count it," she whispered beside my ear. Then when she stepped away she added, "But it better be right!" She waggled her fingers at me and turned away, saying, "See ya next week." She walked briskly away like a woman who knew a man was behind her watching and, as she had the glance at her breasts, liked it.
She was available that next Saturday, and we made love efficiently, if simply. We did not discuss my proposition. But when I walked out, she said, "How about breakfast?" I nodded.
When I met Ellen that night after work, she said, "So, you broke your pattern for Elise. You think she's it?"
"You run the ad?"
"Oh, yeah. I brought you one." I fumbled in my pocket. The wording was as we had agreed. We had decided it was discreet but unambiguous. I had referenced a post office box. A colleague might see and recognize the phone number.
Ellen read the ad. "You want me to post it?"
"No," I said. "I like Elise, but it's iffy. Bad chemistry. I dunno."
"She's a good kid. She won't last long. I'll bet she goes back to school. She's trying to save money for something."
Elise called my room at eight. I was dressed and writing. I came to the restaurant. Coffee was waiting, and she told me she had ordered a stack of pancakes again.
"You know what?" she said. "You and I would look really weird together. I thought about it all week. People would think you were just fucking me. Freshman pussy."
I got the waitress and ordered my breakfast. When that was done, I said, "They wouldn't believe we had anything else in common."
I told her about the ad. Our breakfasts came; the waitress brought them together despite the difference in the time we ordered them. "I'm just starting to look seriously. You give me a base for comparison. I'd still like you to think about it. But I have my doubts, too. If you like what you're doing now, why change?"
"Shouldn't I?" she said defensively. "Like what I'm doing?" She took a bite of her food.
"I didn't mean you shouldn't. I meant what I said. I think you do like it."
"I don't think living with me is intrinsically better than working for Ellen."
"I just don't think it would work."
"Honestly, neither do I." She looked a little guilty; I tried to think of something to say. "There's this Chinese book I like, called the I Ching."
"Yeah? I had a girl friend who told fortunes with it. She did Tarot cards, too."
"That's the one. There's a phrase that comes up whenever something negative is suggested. 'No blame.' It means, it isn't anybody's fault; it just happens, it's just the way things are."
She ate her pancakes."You know, Thomas, you are a nice guy."
I looked at her plate, then at mine. "Finishing last," I said. We laughed; I began to eat.
In the next week the ad produced four good candidates whom I had to sort from the obvious rejectscranks and crazies and lonely women looking for love rather than employment. The four possibles, interested in "a rewarding position as a live-in companion to educated older man; few housekeeping duties, semi-connubial relationship with full benefits," said nothing about love. They had sent photographs and telephone numbers as instructed. I took the applications up to Ellen and we looked through them together outside the house. It was two-thirty; she was not on duty yet. We sat on the porch and she read their letters, suggested I reject one, tagged another girl as too young. "No way this chick's twenty-one," she said, looking at the photograph. "Women can tell," she added with a superior air.
I watched her reading the letters and studying the photographs. The girls were, in fact, girls. Elise's age and younger. I realized with mild surprise, that I had changed my mind about something.
"I want you," I said. Ellen looked up from the third photograph. She was startled.
"I don't turn tricks, Thomas. You know that."
"Well, I think you should evaluate me as a lover. I'd like to know what you think, what I could do to better satisfy the woman I hire."
"Bullshit," she said with that disarming smile. "You just want to fuck me."
"Well, yes. I mean, yes I do, but no, I'm serious."
"I talk to the girls. I don't need firsthand experience. You are nice in bed, gentle and willing to give while you take. The girls enjoy you. Elise talked you up to a couple of new ones. You could be more assertive, somebody said. Marge."
"I want you. How much more assertive can I be than that?"
"I mean with the girls."
"No, you mean about sex. I'm being assertive. I've known you for a year, but I've never touched you. I want to touch you."
She looked troubled, then grinned and shoved a hand dramatically out to me. I took her wrist, firmly but without threat, rather than shaking her hand.
"Ellen, I want you, just one time, out of friendship. I'm willing to pay if that makes you more comfortable, but I want you."
"I got Peggy reserved for you."
"I'll pay for Peggy. I owe the house. But I want you."
There was, as we stood there, some new reticence in her face, a kind of modesty that puzzled me. Meeting my eyes, hers were friendly but otherwise unreadable. It was nearly four; she stood up. "We'll talk about it after work." She handed me the applications and went inside, leaving me on the porch. I sat there until she came out, wondering what I was doing.
I went to the motel when she was ready for work; I wrote through the evening, stopping for an hour to eat. When it was time for her to meet me, I waited for her in the motel parking lot. She was startled anew when she saw me outside the restaurant.
"Come to my room."
"What kind of a girl do you think I am, Professor Phelan?"
"You're not a girl; you're a woman. I think I'm tired of girls. I don't know that I'm interested in girls any more."
"You like us old hags? Or you turning fairy in your old age?"
"You're ten years younger than I, and beautiful, like deerskin gloves that show some loving wear," I said. I touched her face with the palps of my fingers, gently as breaking the surface of still water.
"Well, you sweet son of a bitch. All right then."
We went to my room. She was wearing a green windbreaker. She stood just inside the door, her hands clutching her lapels across her throat. She projected no bravado; I was tentative. I hung up my own coat. I came back for hers. She took it off almost reluctantly. As I carried it to the closet, she jammed her hands into her jeans pockets.
"Now what?" she asked as I came back. She was still at the door. I kissed her; she turned her neck to meet me. My lips touched the thin skin over the artery. I put a hand in her hair; she put one on my back. "Come fuck me," I said in her ear. She laughed; I pulled away. "What?" I said, scowling.
"Great line, kid." She was grinning. I wondered, my hands on her hips, what it would be like to make love with a friend. In a few minutes, I knew that it was no different than any other kind of love. No, that's not true, and it insults Ellen. It was different in that we were consciously pleasing each other; no debt was being paid in the roll of her pelvis, and I gave and took a gift rather than my due. Neither of us seemed to want more than the pleasure of our mutual satisfaction. It was, I thought with some regret, almost like fucking Elise had been the second time. Ellen and I played with each other's bodies the way we had played with each other's minds for a year, affectionately, without commitment or demand. She was not the most exciting lover I had ever had, and I'm sure she would say the same of me. No blame; it was a little, delicate act of friendship, meant to be nothing more. We were comfortable.
We had made love by the light of the bathroom. We lay together for a few minutes after. She said, "I did do it."
"Eddie and his friend."
"And I enjoyed it." I said nothing. "Does that shock you?"
"I enjoyed it physically, I mean. I guess it wasn't what really did us in. By then, I guess we were out of love, or I would have been hurt, not just offended." I didn't speak. "And not willing. I did it because I didn't care about either of them, and Arnold was kind of attractive, and I was curious." She listened to my silence. "You don't care, do you?"
"It doesn't mean anything."
She sat up abruptly, flouncing her hair. She twisted around onto her knees, looking down at me. She made a face, like a patron in front of an art work.
"The girls are right. You're OK."
"Thank you. I feel a lot more secure."
"A final exam, huh?"
"Well, for you, of course," she said quickly. Her breasts were white and swagged like a pair of apples as her torso moved. I touched one, my fingers delicate on the soft skin and milky substance of the oval. Her belly had the slack smoothness of skin stretched by fat then toned diligently after weight loss. Had she had a child? I doubted it.
"Ellen, can I ask you a question?"
"You just did." She paused an instant to enjoy my exasperation, then added, "You taught me that one, smart boy."
"You know what I want to do, better than anyone."
She angled down into the bed and looked into my face, her head propped on one hand.
"And you know the terms I'm planning to offer when I find someone I think will work out. I know we talked about the value of hiring someone young. I can give her schooling, pay her way at the University as part of the deal. On the other hand, I've slept with half a dozen sweet young things in the last year. I'm not so sure that's what I want."
I rolled onto my side. Now we lay like mirror images, facing each other. "I don't suppose this is the right way to ask, but how would you like the job, at more intermediate salary?"
"No," she said at once, the monosyllable dropping like a small flat rock on the surface of my offer.
"Why? I mean, why are you so sure?"
"Thomas, if you knew what you wanted, you wouldn't be trying to buy it. I like you, and I like my job. We are friends. It's not a good idea to fuck your friends, and it's a lousy idea to put them on salary."
"I think you're wrong. I do know what I want. I think most men aren't honest and I am. I think the hardest part will be finding a woman who believes I want no more or less than what I say I want. And you are proof. No offense."
"Well, I wish you luck. But no. Not this chick."
Ironically, I have never felt more complete, complicitous honesty face-to-face. I did not want to love. Or be loved. And no chance of the latter with Ellen. She is surely, I decided, right about friends.
"Will you come visit me in Reno some time?"
"OK. Will you continue to meet me, if I come up to Winnemucca?"
"In the coffee shop? Sure." She twisted up and out of the bed, snatching up her panties and shirt on her way to the bathroom. I lay in bed, half conscious of water sounds. The flushing of the toilet startled me.
Ellen emerged. Trying to pull her jeans on, she lost her balance and toppled butt first onto the bed. Struggling with the jeans, she muttered, "I'm trusting you to keep your mouth shut, by the way." She rolled back onto her feet, zipping triumphantly and facing me. "I got my rep to watch out for."
"Our secret is safe with me. To protect your honor, I will not offer to pay."
"Now that's a great line. Thanks, cheapskate."
I couldn't decide if she was kidding or not. "Ellen, you can have it either way. I don't know what you want."
Her face sobered as she looked down at me. "No," she said at last. "No, you don't." She turned to the mirror and began that aimless tossing of hair women are prone to. "I told you you couldn't afford me, honey."
At the door, brisk and businesslike, she said, "Thomas, I do wish you luck. If you still want my advice, it's available." The warm smile, the entrepreneur's, was, at last, back. "The usual rate, 'course."
"Of course." When I stepped toward the door, she stepped through it and was gone.
By the next Saturday, I had nearly a dozen applications. We met again after work, in the restaurant. Neither of us mentioned our last encounter. I brought Sam along; normally I boarded her.
Three of the applicants had fulfilled the request for a photograph with pornographic Polaroidsnot what the ad required. They were, like most porn, more clinical that erotic. I had tossed them out as a gesture to my own integrity. I called two of the original four and made appointments to meet them at Harrah's on consecutive nights for dinner and an interview. The first would be Monday. I had brought the applications of five others with me. Two I wasn't interested in, but I was curious to hear Ellen's reaction to them. She looked through the five letters and pictures, and separated out two photographs. She studied each silently, then handed them to me. "These two," she said. "The best so far." One was a dark, feral-looking girl, the other a woman about thirty with a solid, intelligent face.
I examined the pictures. I remembered the letter of the younger one, Terry Shackleford. Most of them signed a first name only, or vague signatures like, "Your Interested Friend." Terry looked Chicana, so I suspected the name was fake. Her letter had a gritty tone that put me off until I read it a second time and realized that it had voicethat quality that made you feel not only that you knew the writer, but that she was worth knowing.
"This 'Linda' one is interesting," Ellen said, penetrating my reverie. "She's older. I bet she turned tricks for a while, got tired of it. She may be unemployed and desperate. Worry about kids. When you talk to her, watch for lying." I nodded. "But maybe not," she added. "She doesn't sound desperate. A little tired. Can you handle tired?" she said, the slightest edge of mockery creeping into her voice.
"It depends on why she's tired," I said defensively. "I'll interview her."
"Elise says she turned you down."
"I never offered."
"Face," Ellen said. We talked; I drove back that night, the letters and pictures beside me on the passenger seat, Sam asleep in back.