So here's the thing. I'm talking on the phone from the bedroom of my tiny graduate school apartment in Seattle to a man stoned on cocaine who has called me from a New York hotel at midnight and wants to know if I will speak with the hooker he has just picked up. I am twenty-five years old; Alex is forty and I have known him for six years.
"What are you wearing?" he asks. I had been doing an assignment for my fiction writing class when he called, and as I often do when I know that I will be up late working at my computer, I am wearing my flannel pajamas because they seem to be the only piece of clothing I own that keeps the damp November chill of Seattle from seeping into my bones. I am also wearing bunny slippers. Based on everything I know from hookers in Hollywood movies, which is essentially everything I know about hookers, I assume she is wearing long black boots, a low-cut blouse, and a breakaway skirt. I do not want to speculate on what Alex is wearing.
"Alex, I'm working," I say.
"I just want you to talk with her for five minutes," he says. "I was telling her all about you. Look, it is important to me that you talk with her. I need you to. I want her to know you."
Over the receiver, his voice rises with his demand. I draw in a deep breath, my hands shaking as I hold onto the phone.
When did my life become about decisions like this? And why am I even considering honoring such a strange request of a man who is neither relative, ex-boyfriend nor lover?
Alex is a writer. Not just any writer, in addition to publishing novels, he is also a noted journalist, television writer and senior producer for two of the hottest-ranked network dramas. He has a wife, a son and a large three-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. He is a regular at the famed Elaine's, where Woody Allen supposedly plays his sax on weeknights and New York's theatre and literary set are said to rub elbows with L.A. Hollywood's set.
He also happens to be my former writing instructor when I was an undergraduate, which is why I am still hanging onto the phone trying to decide whether to talk to a prostitute named Brianna. For when I was a college sophomore, this man with the New York writer's pedigree, a pair of John Lennon glasses, a shock of prematurely white hair, and a long, handsome, and intelligent nose, told me that I could write.
"Hey," he said, in full hearing of the eleven other writing students in class. "You're really good at this."
I was nineteen years old and had never really been good at anything, though to be thought good, to be thought of as talented, as even possessing a singular genius, was my sole ambition in life.
To such end, over the years of my childhood and adolescence, I had tried with less than stellar results the violin, the piano, acting, competitive figure skating, and for the past eight years had been focused on ballet—on being a professional dancer. I had signed up for the creative writing course simply because my parents insisted I major in something besides dance, and, when it came to filling my English language and literature requirements, I thought the class would be infinitely more exciting than twelve weeks of reading Chaucer in Middle English.
And here suddenly was Alex, my college professor, admiring my short story about when I was eight years old and had conquered the neighborhood sledding hill. I could tell stories. I could be interesting.
So Alex became my mentor. After making my way through his introductory class, I took intermediate, then advanced fiction writing, finally studying with him one-on-one during my senior year when for my honors thesis I decided to write a novel, which of course was all about a young aspiring dancer who had a secret talent that nobody recognized until it was nearly too late.
For three years he encouraged me, praised my writing, nominated and secured for me a college writing prize, introduced me to an agent, and never once gave me an indication that he wanted anything more from our relationship. Certainly, word occasionally filtered through the dorms about professors who slept with, even eventually married, their pupils, but mostly it was no more than dinner conversation, an hour's fine entertainment speculating about what our cutest male professors (strictly based on looks, Alex wouldn't have qualified) might look like without their clothes on. And truthfully, I often missed a lot of those conversations, arriving late for dinner after a rehearsal or dance class ran long. Maybe Alex did drop a few hints that he saw me as more than an eager student, but likely I was just too absorbed in myself and my ambitions to notice, especially since for the third time in two years I had been cast as the understudy rather than one of the lead dancers in the faculty dance concert, an ongoing slap in the face that I was finding difficult to accept.
But then the week of my graduation Alex invited me to have dinner with him and some of his literary friends who were up visiting to participate in a writers' forum. Though he lived in Manhattan, he kept an apartment near the college for the two days a week he drove up to Massachusetts to teach classes.
"Meet me at my place," he said. "Then I'll drive you to the restaurant where we can meet the rest of the gang. I especially want you to meet Richard. Your work reminds me of his."
I had no idea who Richard was, but the fact that Alex compared my work to a published author was enough for me. I felt excited, flattered and terribly, terribly grown up. And the invitation itself wasn't that unusual—many professors took an extra interest in those students they thought they could help in guiding their careers or advanced studies. After all, that was why most of us students had chosen to go to a small elite liberal arts college in the first place: for personalized attention.
I dressed up as much as I could for that night given my limited college wardrobe of blue jeans, turtlenecks, and black leotards. Then I walked the four blocks from campus to Alex's apartment.
"Come on in," he said, opening the door for me. "I'm just making myself another drink."
And he shook the glass tumbler he held in his hand, jingling the half-melted ice cubes.
"Thanks," I said, walking only somewhat hesitantly into his apartment. We had been alone before, in his office, at the local diner where he would eat lunch and I would slowly sip away on a thirty-two-ounce glass of Diet Coke while we went over the latest pages of my novel. But I had never been in his apartment. And though I dated on and off throughout college, I had certainly never been in the apartment of a man fifteen years my senior. Not a married man.
Since Alex spent so few hours there, and the place was a rental, I wasn't all that surprised to see how sparsely it was furnished. Just a couch, an old wooden coffee table, a desk with a computer and a few half-filled shelves of books. The bedroom and bathroom hung off from the short part of the "L" that was the apartment's layout. I put my purse down on the coffee table and noted the cosmetic mirror and razor blade lying there. A few grains of flakes, white as snow, clung to the glass mirror.
"You want something to drink?" he asked.
"Water would be great," I said. "Just a little ice."
Despite the dinner gossip in the dorms, as I watched him fetch my drink, for the first time I truly wondered about my college professors, and thought about them as human beings, their frailties, their secret desires. Surely, he (and they) could be forgiven if he liked to indulge every now and then in a few lines of coke. I trusted Alex, who encouraged me to be smart, share my opinions and dream big.
Alex handed me my glass of water. I sat down on the couch. Alex stood before me, looking down at my face.
"You're so beautiful," he said. "I just love watching you move."
"Thank you," I said, feeling a small trace of moisture suddenly gather at the back of my neck. Was this simply the typical male fantasy about ballerinas and bendability? What was this? He was my professor for God's sake. He was sitting down next to me on the couch. I discreetly tried to move a few inches away. He was my professor for God's sake—I didn't want to offend him if I was misreading the situation.
"You know what I like best about you? You share your feelings so easily. Not just when you write. I mean you just go ahead and say what you feel. It's a wonderful thing to see."
"Thank you," I said again, though if I really could just go and say what I felt just then it wouldn't have been wonderful.
"I can't talk about my feelings," he said. "It's hard for me."
"You're a man."
"That's not what I mean. Do you know what I mean by feelings? I mean the deep feelings, the things you can't share with people usually. The ugly secrets. But you, it's in your writing—you're not afraid to look at the darker things in life."
In my head, I quickly catalogued what I had written in my short stories or the novel I had shared with him that could possibly lead him to such a conclusion. I come from an upper-middle-class background, from a family big on liberalism and intellectualism with an overemphasis on perfectionism. I lived almost entirely in my head, fantasizing about the day my gifts would be recognized, if not as a dancer, then as a writer. As for sex, like most dancers, I didn't really think about it much—men's fantasies about fucking ballerinas notwithstanding, after six hours a day of dance classes, strenuous physical exertions are not exactly top of mind. It's not like I hadn't dated. I had, ambitious Ivy League boys from Harvard and Dartmouth, whose clumsy over-earnest attempts at foreplay generally left me empty. Nice polite boys majoring in pre-law or pre-med, who brought me flowers and chocolates, and while eager to get me into bed, always were respectful about their advances. Ivy League boys who smacked of security, respectability, and middle-class predictability—exactly the type of guy my parents hoped I might meet when they sent me off to college in the first place. It wasn't that I didn't find them attractive, but after five or six dates, they simply bored me to death. I even went to bed with one of them to confirm what I already suspected—I didn't want a nice boy. I wanted a complicated, sexy man, whose dark brooding eyes could silence me with a word, whose body resonated with music, who believed in big bold moves and dark tragic colors. In short, I preferred my imagination to real life, which inevitably left me feeling chronically disappointed.
From his comments, Alex seemed to know this, to understand what was in my head rather than just the small, freshly scrubbed, rather demure physical being that stood before him. He saw me the way I wanted to see myself: a latter-day Charlotte Brontë with a mass of black witchy hair, eyes electric as a storm, and skin that smelled of the moors and a deeply ingrained talent. After all, wasn't having a dark side the sure sign of true genius?
"Well," I said. "It helps to have friends you can talk to. My friends here at school are wonderful."
"I want us to be friends," he said.
"Sometimes," he said, leaning in really close to me. "Sometimes when my wife is gone, I go through her drawers, pull out a pair of her panties, and put them on. Then I sit there with all the lights off wearing her underwear. I just want to know how it feels to wear them."
"I see," I said, but I didn't. Would Charlotte Brontë know what to say about a man sitting around in his wife's pink satin panties? This conversation, this situation, was way beyond me. I was a bun head, a ballerina, who in fact went without underwear most of the time since I was nearly always dressed in tights. Somehow or other I knew this was probably not the sort of information I should share with Alex. I also knew that he was telling me something that to him was deeply important. I had no idea how to respond.
"Do you think that's weird? Wearing women's panties?" he asked.
"What time are the dinner reservations?" I said.
Alex looked at his watch, "You're right. We should go."
He was his usual self the rest of the night, polite, intelligent, and very much caught up in the conversations going around the table. But even though I met the famed Richard, and even Richard's publisher, whose name if I had been thinking more clearly, I would have made more of an effort to remember, I kept thinking about what had just happened in Alex's apartment. And I was terrified of what would happen after dinner when we would be once more alone together in his car.
But nothing more transpired; he simply drove me back to the dorm, wished me luck at the graduation ceremonies and told me to keep in touch.
I didn't. Instead, one year later my ballet career ended before it really started in an elementary school auditorium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where, dressed as a white duck in orange swim fins, I ran around on stage flapping my duck wings until I was eaten by a thirteen-year-old dancer wearing a furry Velcro wolf costume. For my role in this semi-professional performance of Peter and the Wolf, I received the sum of one hundred fifty dollars and the humiliation of knowing that after more than a decade studying ballet six days a week, six hours a day, largely eschewing sex, boyfriends, and mounds of delectable but oh, so fattening ice cream, I had ended up dancing in front of 40 seven-year-olds who didn't for a minute believe that bright orange swim fins looked anything like webbed feet.
Even though I hadn't spoken to Alex since that last night, I chose to call him rather than my women friends to share the crisis. While my friends would have been very supportive, the humiliation was a jarring blow, real life descending upon me at last. For it wasn't like the signs all hadn't been there: I cringed when I remembered how often I had been knocked out in the first round of ballet company auditions, about my dance teachers endlessly lamenting my low arches and limited musicality. The signs had all been there, but I hadn't wanted to believe it—hadn't wanted to accept that sometimes in life years of hard work, bloody toes, and an endless desire for recognition can result in nothing more than an empty desperate sense of longing. Even when I had been cast in Peter in the Wolf, I, who had the most training, hadn't been chosen for the main role of the pretty blue bird—that honor went to an eighty-pound fourteen-year-old. I felt deeply ashamed knowing that in many ways I had viewed myself as if not above my friends, at least apart from them, more committed to my art, more determined, a fact which must of made them resent me, especially when what was so apparent to them had been utterly lost on me: I simply couldn't "wish" success into being. It was an ugly truth to learn about myself. But as I sat there in the darkness of my barely furnished apartment in Boston, I remembered what Alex had said about my understanding of the darker things in life. Maybe he and I shared a kinship after all.
So, I picked up the phone and dialed his office number in New York. Amazingly, he was there and didn't even seem all that surprised to hear from me after a year's absence.
"The thing was," I said to him finishing up the story. "The kids weren't laughing with me; they were laughing at me."
"Come to New York," he said. "I'll get you a job writing for one of the television shows."
And tears of gratitude rolled down my cheeks. Maybe tutus and white tulle had eluded me, yet in a matter of seconds I realized how surprisingly easy it was to picture myself with an attractive two-bedroom loft in SoHo, dressed all in black and madly adored by a sexy actor lover fully equipped with a leather bomber jacket, motorcycle, and bad boy attitude, whom of course I would meet while writing witty, urbane scripts for an Emmy-award winning television show.
But I didn't go to New York. Perhaps it was foolish of me—to throw away an offer that seemed to involve creative work, money and perhaps even a shot at a superficial type of fame, all things I said I desperately wanted. But it was too easy to picture me back in New York—as though I was simply trading in one fantasy for another.
I turned down Alex's offer for another reason as well, for despite the support he showed me, I recalled that night in his apartment and I knew that if I went to New York to work with Alex there were strings attached.
Instead, over the next few months, I put away my leotards and pointe shoes, began work on a second novel and wrote away for graduate writing school applications. But Alex wasn't prepared to cut the strings so easily.
For after that, every few months or so, he would call me on the phone, usually late at night, just to talk. During most of the conversations, everything was fine; he talked about the TV shows, what his son was doing in school, people he had met. Then he would get strangely quiet and there would be a heavy silence over the phone.
"Alex," I would say. "Alex, are you there?"
"I need to tell you something."
"Alex, what is it?"
"I want us to be naked together," he would say. Or sometimes he would simply ask me to describe what I was wearing. Then the moment would pass, and he would be himself once more.
"When are you coming to New York? I can help you here."
"I can't right now," I'd say. "I'm halfway through my MFA. I'm learning a lot."
Eventually, he would drift off into silence again and I would hang up the phone.
At one point, I thought about changing my phone number, but I kept telling myself that it wasn't really that big a deal—just a few drunken calls—especially since he had never really demanded anything specific from me. Also by then of course, I had fallen in love, truly in love with a Seattle man ten years my senior, embarking on a passionate relationship which I somehow thought would make me invulnerable to Alex's odd requests, even though I never dared tell my lover about Alex. And when I didn't hear from Alex again for more than four months, I figured it, whatever it was, was over, which left me feeling mostly relieved, though also a little bit abandoned by one of the few people in my life who said they believed in me.
* * *
But now Alex is on the phone once more. He says that he had just been walking around Manhattan trying to work out a new angle for the show, and he had seen Brianna on the street. They are at a hotel now, he says. He wants her to talk with me. Nothing dirty, just to talk.
I picture the hotel, a dark seedy place over by Port Authority, the smell of piss and day-old semen permeate the hallway, where hookers in faux fur coats and drug addicts in dark torn T-shirts linger in the dark corridor by the sole public phone in the hotel waiting to make their connection, get their fix. I shake the image off; it is too much like the television scripts that Alex writes. Besides, Alex has money—the Ritz Carlton would be more his style.
Either way, he is on the phone, waiting for my answer.
"Alex," I say. "I don't really feel comfortable doing this."
"Please," he says. "Please, just for me. Just say hi to her."
My hands are sweating profusely now. Just hang up, I tell myself. But I don't.
"Okay," I say. "Just for a minute."
Alex hands Brianna the phone.
"Hello?" she says. Her voice is light, with a slight trace of a Southern accent. She seems as hesitant as I am.
"Is he very, very stoned?" I ask.
"A bit," she says. "We had a few drinks together, did a few lines. Then he got it into his head that he had to talk with you. Are you his ex-wife or something?"
"Has he hurt you?" I ask.
"No," she says. "He just seems to want to talk."
"I'm going to go now, okay? Just tell him everything's okay."
"Wait," she says. "He wants to talk to you."
He is back on the line; I feel his heavy silence.
"Alex, you've got to stop doing this," I say.
"Do you think I'm a pervert?" he says.
"Do you think it is perverted to pick up a hooker simply to talk to her to find out what she thinks about when she picks up a John?"
"Well, I guess it's better than having sex with her," I say, though I know I am being flippant to make up for the fact that I am furious with him (and more than a little bit frightened) for putting me in this position.
"But I'm not perverted, right?"
I sigh. I do think he is perverted. I think there is something fundamentally dangerous about him, something totally wrong about a man who seems to feel he can only achieve true intimacy with his wife by wearing a pair of her panties or get "off" by putting two women from completely different backgrounds on the phone to see what happens. For a second I am not sure whether he hopes to shame the hooker or me. Whether he has known all along that while I am no Charlotte Brontë, he very much wants to play a warped sort of her Mr. Rochester, controlling all the women in his life. But this is no longer the nineteenth century, the lonely writer's garret has been replaced by the austere walls of my tiny graduate school apartment, any wind from the moors drowned out by the sound of my fingers as they press down on the keyboard of my desktop computer, armed with the comforting knowledge that in a couple of hours the man I love will be done with work and calling me up on the phone to say goodnight. Okay, there is no soul-killing orphanage as in Jane Eyre, no madwoman hidden away in the attic, yet still, still, as I hang onto the phone, uncomfortable as hell, I realize suddenly that my hands aren't shaking so much from fear and anger as from excitement—a mad, itching curiosity to play it all out, to break taboos, to enter those dark secret doors that Alex seems to want me to explore, even if only for a moment, because, if nothing else, it makes for one great story.
"So am I a pervert?" he asks again.
"No," I say. And as I hang up the phone, I realize something else too—that it's true. He is not the real pervert, I am. For I do hang on; I do take the calls, like the prostitute, I'm the one who indulges Alex's desires, simply because if one day I fail at this graduate school thing, at this fiction writing thing, if I fail to be successful, I might need to take him up on one of his offers. I may need access to his two Emmy awards, his $500,000-a-year salary, his Rolodex of phone numbers to every major literary agent in New York and Hollywood. I might need my fix, to hear him whisper into the phone those most filthy corrupting words of all, "Hey, you know, you're really good at this."