She wasn’t your type, the redhead. She was the kind with fiery orange hair and flawless fair skin. On one of her photos she wore a tight flannel shirt, cut off to expose her midriff. I immediately thought of St- Patrick’s Day.
That’s the kind of redhead she was, the kind that takes your mind, well, mine anyway, to corned beef sandwiches and Guinness. I remember cocking my head. It was so unlike you.
The first time I’d been suspicious we didn’t even live together yet. We drank wine and fucked a lot. Sometimes we’d even walk down to Chinatown to eat. When you had a job in the city you’d stay over. The morning sex was always my favorite. I made you a set of keys. My doorman knew your name but none of my friends did. That’s how you and I started out.
Anyway. The first time I suspected something, you’d been staying at my place for a couple of days. I came home from work to find you gone, but you hadn’t drained your bathwater. It was tepid, and there was a ring of pubic fuzz around the tub. Your razor was on the windowsill in the bathroom with tiny mounds of dried-up soap bubbles around it. Your laptop was on my bed. I had a nasty feeling in my stomach when I cracked open that screen. I knew what I was doing was wrong. I also think I knew what I’d find.
Our relationship was so new that your computer didn’t have a password. You hadn’t even bothered to close the browser window. All I saw was a buxom brunette with blue eyes and, as you would gloat to me later, an ass you could bounce a dime off.
We weren’t even really dating. My friends nicknamed you my non-boyfriend.
I loved how non-committal we were, but the first one was a shock. You were a good-looking guy, we had sweaty, wild sex — surely you didn’t need to pay a stranger to do what I was doing for free?
I was so naïve. Worse than that, I was curious.
Before snapping your computer shut I copied the website address into my own browser window, then texted you to ask where you’d gone. While I waited for your response, I became engrossed.
By the time you texted back with some lie about having dinner with your buddy Mark (who was publicly tweeting from a Knicks game), I was both impressed by the quality of the merchandise you selected from and intrigued by the whole process: four hundred roses for an hour, six hundred for two.
There was more lingo I would seek to translate. There were user reviews and message boards, tour dates and identity verification processes. Referrals, even.
This was all before I got attached. I know, I know. I should never have let myself get attached.
But I did, and a year later we moved in together.
By then I knew a lot about your “hobby”, as you called it. As many men call it. You had promised me that you never pursued it when you were in a relationship, and I’d believed you. I wouldn’t have moved to Williamsburg otherwise.
I know, I know. I should never have believed that.
Over the years the whole thing turned into a game of cat and mouse. I caught you and almost moved out. The day I told you I was going to sign a lease in the Village you cried, and the tears seemed real. You seemed broken. You told me you loved me, and that you were afraid. I loved you, too. It was hard, but we worked through it.
I did some soul-searching. I was okay with an open relationship, I admitted, so long as it was honest — yet you insisted on lying, on hiding your hobby. I’d get that feeling in the pit of my stomach and tell you about it. You would make up a story, or stonewall me, and I’d start to see the old, familiar signs.
You left evidence out in the open so often that I didn’t even have to dig, but sometimes I did, and whenever I dug there was something to find: a Dominican girl with kinky hair and high cheekbones; a blonde with dark eyes and legs for days; a black-haired spinner with milky-white skin and long nipples.
I know now that a lot of the secrecy had nothing to do with me. There’s no internal shame involved in woodworking or collecting vinyl records.
“Everybody needs a little strange,” you said to me once when I dug and found some emails to a tall Korean girl with Barbie tits and collagen lips. That made sense to me: variety is the spice of life. There were lots of things I could do for you in the bedroom, but turning Korean wasn’t one of them.
I loved you so much that I bounced from fury to intrigue time and again. I accepted and ignored. I wondered why the dishonesty hurt more than the cheating. I cranked up to a 12 in the bedroom so you’d be too tired to venture out. We’d go through months at a time where everything was smooth and then, out of the blue, I’d get that feeling again. Cues that were obvious to the trained eye — my trained eye — started to reappear.
You’d make me breakfast in the morning but avoid eye contact. I’d empty your pockets in the laundry room and find an ATM stub for a $500 withdrawal. You were the guy that never carried cash. Your balls would be shaved smooth, “just because.”
And then there was the redhead. I was in an intrigue phase when I found her. (Do you have any idea how hard I tried to understand you?) There was something in her eyes that told me she was different. Maybe that’s what drew you to her, too.
You’d gotten that job in Jersey, and the shifts were insane but work had been sporadic for a few months so sometimes you spent the night out there. It was good money but you didn’t get a hotel room. Your high school friends lived nearby so you stayed with them. They had kids, dogs. It didn’t cross my mind you might be in collector mode. Even I’m shocked at how naïve I can be.
Three weeks into the gig you left your phone open on the counter one Sunday morning. You didn’t usually do this. I grabbed it, on autopilot.
You’d made a bunch of calls to a number that wasn’t programmed into your contacts. I was suspicious, but not enough to dig more. I did jot down the number, in case things got weird, and tucked it away for later.
Later came the following month. I think we fought over the curtains, I don’t remember exactly. What I do remember is fishing out the phone number from the top drawer of my nightstand after you slammed the door, and Googling it.
It was almost too easy. There she was, Ireland in a bustier, right there on the biggest website for these kinds of things. I saw red, obviously.
We’d been going at it for three years, you and me: this interminable game of cat and mouse. I was tired. More importantly, I was frustrated. All this time you had captivated my attention, you and this whole world of yours that was so foreign to me, yet I still felt no closer to figuring you out.
Maybe she could help, I remember thinking. She seems nice.
I e-mailed her. I told her the truth: I found her ad because I’d looked at my boyfriend’s phone, and he’d been doing this for years but I thought he was done, and I just wanted to know if she could help me understand.
A few minutes later, she replied. “Call me.”
Even though you weren’t home I left the house and walked around our neighborhood in circles until I found a park bench, far away from anyone who might overhear.
“It’s not the first time I’ve gotten one of those e-mails,” she assured me. Her voice was so warm, soothing.
“I understand where you’re coming from. You know, a lot of these guys though, they call and then they never follow through. What does your boyfriend look like?”
I described you. She hesitated. My heart skipped a beat.
“I remember talking to him,” she confessed. “He was funny! But we didn’t actually meet. My schedule didn’t work with his. I have a little boy, he’s three. His dad left almost two years ago and I’ve tried hard to be a stay-at-home-mom. This is the only way I can support us and put myself through school at night.”
I liked her.
“He’s a lucky guy to have you,” she said.
I wished she were closer so we could meet. I resented myself for wishing that.
Then she asked me if I had any other questions.
“I’ve been trying to understand him for years,” I confided. “I can’t talk to anyone about this. What are your clients like? Why do they come to you?”
“Mostly,” she said, “They come for fun, and I don’t mean kinky sex kind of fun, though some are into that, too. I mean playful banter. Non-judgmental listening. Escapism.”
“I’m removed from reality, from responsibilities. These guys, they can tell me everything about their day, their worries, their lives, and because I don’t have a vested interest, it feels like a safe place to dump.”
“I can see that,” I said. “But why do you think he lies about it even when I’ve offered an open relationship?”
She paused. “He’s ashamed of what he’s doing, even if you’re not. He doesn’t want to burden you with it, too. Weird as it may sound to you, in my experience, it’s because he loves you very, very much. Men who don’t care don’t bother lying.”
I believed her. I still believe her.
Of course, it was in her best interests to deny seeing you, but there’s something nakedly honest about two women having that kind of conversation. She told me her son’s name. The love she felt for him was obvious. The lonely life she lived was, too.
You can thank her for the last year of our relationship. She helped me see you well enough to try one last time. You can thank her for the love I feel for you now.
The prostitute you never paid knew the part of you I’d been searching for all along, and she gave it to me. For free.