Magda sends her ex to me and he shows up showered and clammy. Magda is six foot in work heels and billed herself as Jessica, as in Rabbit, way before zaftig redheads got popular, but her ex Shawn is small and freckled, and Magda once told me, drunk over steaks at Moxie’s, that the skin of his spine smells like a milk-bathed baby’s.

“I’m new at this,” he says.

“I’d never have known.” I point a bare shoulder at him and flash theatre lashes. He means he’s special.

He knocked while I waited for the buzzer, plucking stray ankle hairs in the white noonlight split of a cracked curtain and checking my fifteen-star tweet for more stars. I’m in the practice of opening incall doors in lingerie and heels, a tactic Gilly pressed on us at the agency, where he groaned over the luxury of a waiting woman strapped in lace. My civilian preference is undressing mid-act: skirt rucked up the hip, tits tugged from cups, panties fingered apart, t-shirt come-stricken. Instead, this, the Agent Provocateur Juniper line: sheer black net demi-bra with frilled lilac trim, front-opening for the ultimate reveal; garter belt; seamed thigh-highs; and the brief, if not the thong, knotted with bud and bloom. Eight hundred, all in. I greet clients with pin-winged shoulderblades for punchout knockers. Stomach sucked to spine. Weight on toes. This looks normal. My strain is normal.

Shawn’s a narrow-legged suit with a bit of unhappy weight. Pattern baldness head-shaver; glasses hold his face in place. He and Magda probably spent their summers dipping their dewy visages in each other’s crannies. She was dating down, for a bit.

I smile, extend my good arm, and touch his elbow. His sneakers are dry: he parked underground, or else lit along the ruined sidewalk snow like an elf at war. He pokes his nose past me. I waft backwards to lure him, holding the door. I brush him, locking it.

“That buzzer’s being so unreliable,” I say.

“The doorman let me in.”

“I would’ve come down.”

“Like that?”

“Like this,” I smile and slink into his jacket as he unbuttons it. I say, “So nice to meet you.” I DFK him, because DFK greetings review well with the hobbyists. New girls give out hugs like friendly daughters-in-law, pressing accidental breasts. Hugging prolongs nervous chatting when he just wants the switch flipped. Just let him feel safe for five seconds. Flick his tongue. Flip it. Stay there in the doorway kissing for as long as he wants to stay there.

Shawn retracts, goes into the kitchen. Opens the fridge, shuts it. He looks at me. “So you don’t live here?”

“It’s my friend’s place,” I follow him. “Have you met her? Charley?”

“No,” he says.

“She’d like you,” I say, so he knows I like him. My hand is on him. “Would you like a drink?”

“I’m fine,” he says.

Magda also said he’s not too big, which is good because Magnum guys want to blunt their snakeheads on your cervix, and small ones insist you enthuse so hard they side-eye you harder, and also try nosing into your asshole whether or not you list Greek. Just as long as they aren’t limp. In December, Shan tweeted, “Every time you try to make me put a condom on your flaccid cock God kills a puppy.” As soon as they go soft I know I’ll never see them again. They don’t want the money back. When I worked for Gilly I walked out of twenty-minute cokedick failures thrilled with dry thighs and cash, but indie now, I take the long view and hate to lose the repeat. What do you say to them? I still don’t know what to say. When it was a bar pickup I sat back on my heels and cackled until he got mad. With my boyfriend my venom flowed down the back of my own throat. “Oh, sweetie. It’s fine,” I said. “Who cares, it’s really fine.”

Magda’s ex looks over my shoulder at the glass table, the cowhide, the twill sofa. He taps his stack straight on the granite. I take it, still smiling. I tuck his bills into an out-of-mind cutlery drawer.

I glance down my plunge line. It’s an inviting curve, restructured last spring. Gilly paid for some, which was nice of him, and unexpected. There was that period when I drank his Czech moonshine and let him drive me around to outcalls. Three a.m. dinner at all-night diners in Chinatown with whoever was around: his hobbyist buddies, whatever touring girl. Then the one time I went to his house in the deep suburbs and drank until he put me to bed, where everything was inevitable and pleasant until he lied about taking the condom off halfway through and I closed my eyes, paralyzed and enraged. The next day he texted: I have feeling that I can make love to you for ever… every day. I was blind with hangover, but I took a call and pulled an arm-length strand of another girl’s hair from the crease of an obese mathematician’s thigh. The mathematician wrote a review on the hobbyist board: My only complaint is she seemed tired. Gilly was outraged. When the mathematician texted, I was playing Xbox with my boyfriend. I squawked and read it out loud: “I really just want to take you out for a drink and get to know you when you don’t have the meter going.” My boyfriend raised his eyebrows at the TV, smashing brigands with his warhammer: “That’s kind of a nice thought though, really.” I snarled, shook my head, skittered the phone hard across the floor. It lodged beneath the sleeping dog. She lifted her head.

Magda’s ex touches my breast. A thumb over the nipple. He keeps his hand cupped as he kisses me. I smile into his mouth. “Thank god you’re such a good kisser,” I say. I say this every time. This time, it’s a little true. His puddling belly: he is not so out of shape I have to be sensitive, but neither am I obligated to admire. I will compliment his suit as I take it off him, and I will be delighted by the underwear he picked out to wear for me: some notion of his best. I run my hands up his ribcage, flirt with shirt buttons, angle one hip into his crotch. I missed the dry-humping stage of adolescence. I wasn’t popular. If he won’t make out in the doorway will he make out in the kitchen? My civilian preference is the couch. I make sounds like I don’t mean to make them. The more like a baby animal, the better.

“Do I really need two hours?” he says.

I can’t answer sweetly so I smile and kiss him.

He says, “I just wouldn’t spend two hours with most people. No offense.”

Eventually, if I don’t answer the question, he’ll pretend to forget he asked. My two-hour minimum means I don’t finger-soap my asshole or dull a razor for less than five hundred, even though on paper my rate is still a reasonable three per hour. My FAQ intimates that close, established friends can book one-hour quickies for less. The price is set to intimidate and offend. It wards off cheapskates and one-offs, but it’s risky because a bad kisser – one that pogoes and stirsticks his tongue while drooling down both your chins – makes for a lot of conversation about his boss and the movies he likes in the dead drag between orgasms. And the hobbyists get snippy, bitching about rates to each other. For five hundred they definitely want their Multiple Shots On Goal, each more laboured than the last, and when they say, “Where do you want it?” I say, “Come on my face, come all over my face, please, oh fuck, oh my god,” with my eyelids clamped. Actually I do like the mess: I list COF, CIM, Pearl Necklace, basically all the trappings of Porn Star Experience, except for Greek because it’s such a pain with the precautionary enemas and shitty dicks. If I had a dick I would not want shit on it. If I had to step into the shower to wash someone’s shit off my dick I wouldn’t want to see them again. All else being equal I do want to see them again, in the end.

Magda’s ex says, “You actually look different from your pictures.”

“Do I?” Delight, like this is the beginning of an outlandish compliment.

Magda’s phone was full of photos of them together: selfies at Niagara Falls, white wineries. Her fedora. His flushed face. They met at her day job. She’s the only one I know who bothered with a day job. Now she’s left town and he’s short and alone. She texted me this morning: Would you be interested in seeing Shawn? I promise he’s sweet. He’ll love you. She went west. She never said it, but she met someone. She came for tea in the summer, thin with lovesickness, grinning, powerful.

“You do, you just,” says Magda’s ex. His tight mouth. He gestures a curve.
“Should I be concerned?”

“No,” he says.

“You’re insulting me?” I laugh.

“It’s not bad,” he says.

I’ll never look like Magda. She’s Helen, I’m the fleet that sailed for her and burned at anchor off Themiscyra, where the one-breasted archers let fly their flaming arrows. Or I’m the archers. When I was 20 I sat topless in front of the surgeon who told me how much he could shrink my breasts, but what I really wanted was for him to cut them off entirely. It was a phase. Magda didn’t mention her sideline to her ex for a long time. She told him three hours before she met his mother. When I told my boyfriend he said, “I thought you were a feminist,” and, “What if you get herpes?” He said, “Are you being reckless?” There’s no need to get condescending.

Now Magda’s ex is looking at my forearm, and the right side of my belly, where my skin is rashed. He’s still wearing his dry sneakers. Maybe I was scratching. The skin is constellated with half-healed scabby bumps. They’ve itched for a week. Some are healing faster than others.

I turn slightly so the arm is out of sight, tossing my hair back over my shoulder, and kiss him again. I unhinge, one-handed and demure, the front hasp of my Juniper. “Just so long as you’re happy with what you see,” I murmur.

My purse, with my driver’s license and a roll of lavender-scented dog shit bags, is stashed beside the couch. The safe under the sink is where we leave Charley the fees so she can pay her mortgage. There’s a bowl of mints that remind me so much of the law office I worked in through undergrad that I put them in the closet every time I arrive.

His mouth is closed to mine. He does not touch my breasts. He pulls back again. I do not sigh. I cock my head, smiling.

“Are you sure you don’t want a drink?” I say. Charley’s block of Malbecs and Cabs. The fridge is ranked with Belgian and Quebecois beers.

“No, thanks.”

“Tea?” I offer.

“No,” he says.

“Milk?” I say. He doesn’t laugh.

He looks into the living room, where the gauzy undercurtains are laced against the view. My bra dangles from my shoulders like a silly vest. Closing it now would seem severe. I shrug out of it, smiling, and drop it on the polished granite.

I manage my work wardrobe by always wearing the same thing with new clients. My A-game Juniper and these mall pumps, every time. Outcalls, I add a black dress, no jewelry. Once a client asked me to wear a ballgown to his house. I explained what a ballgown was and he agreed I should wear my black dress. It was an ESL thing. Last week for Valentine’s Day I waited in the Juniper for my boyfriend to come home, and then faked an orgasm when he went down on me. Once I told him that the difference between clients and partners is that I never fake orgasms with partners, which was true, back then. Also on Valentine’s Day, a client so tasteless I am embarrassed to be seen with him in public invited me to a motel called the Romeo and Juliet. “You’re so pensive,” he said, as I considered the grim Jacuzzi, the robotic television, the hygiene strip over the toilet seat. I imagined walking out. Lying under the mirrored ceiling, face in full blush, I pictured my high school English teacher sitting disgusted and hard in the corner. My client whined, limp in his condom, but I came honestly.

Magda’s ex ignores my breasts. He is examining the granite countertop. The cast iron grill over the gas range is immaculate. The steel has never been splattered. Not often enough we all end up here drinking purse gin. Most of us do ad shoots here, black heels and long calves on the straightbacked gold jacquard armchair. Our hair in our faces, our necks twisted away. The fireplace flick-licks the fake wood. Twenty-second floor, the view is south and he’s looking either at his own office building or the dead lake. Once I did a shoot in the forest, lounging on bark and rock, rough-haired as a dryad. If he stays till five it’ll be black out. The minutes here have never passed as slowly as they did sitting at reception in my cheap blazer with those lawyers smirking by.

“Come sit down. You’re making me nervous,” I say with all my smiling teeth, like he’s teasing me and I like it. My voice is the fireplace, bathing that fake log.

“Look, actually.” He turns to me. “I’m actually,” he says.

“Sweetie,” I say. If he were my dog or a toddler I’d put one palm on his chest and rub in slow circles. The boyfriend I hated most called me sweetie.

“I’m sorry for wasting your time,” he says. He’s lapped the island again. He opens the cutlery drawer and takes out my money. “I’ll leave you half.”

I stand centered in the room, four inches taller than myself, nipples staring. My feet are slipping down my shoes with the sweat I’m working up working him. My rash itches, on my arm, stomach and along my hipbone. I twist the ugly skin out of sight. I suck in my belly, pin my shoulderblades.

“I’m not sure what’s wrong.” My voice is still sunny, but mid-December sunny. “Are you uncomfortable?”

If he leaves I don’t have to change the sheets. I’m down the hour it took me to shower, dress and drive here, and fifty for Charley. I’ve already allocated the cash: two-fifty Needs, one hundred Wants, one hundred Savings. I’m behind on savings this month. If he leaves me two-fifty it’ll be two hundred Needs, that’s it. Or he could leave me nothing. But if I’m in my car in the next ten minutes I’ll beat rush hour. I’ll be chopping vegetables when my boyfriend gets home.

“I’m not uncomfortable,” he says.

I tilt my head. He wants me to say he doesn’t owe me anything. He’s split the money in two, he’s straightening each stack. He wants to count them properly. He hasn’t been hard once the whole time he’s been here. If he leaves now I’ll never see him again. He must think he’s very powerful.

“So what’s the problem then?” Sunlight sparks and dies on the office tower across the street. If I opened the curtains how many legal receptionists would sit and watch my ass in its thong.

“No problem. All the best.” One pile of twenties go into his trouser pocket. He elides my eyes. He slides the deadbolt. The door closes behind him.

He’s left one-eighty. I count it twice. It’s like a robbery. I have never been robbed and it’s nothing like a robbery, but I feel robbed. I look at my phone. He walked out, I type to Charley, then delete it. I could lie, instead: No show. No. I pitch the phone hard at the couch, where it bounces cutely. I open the cutlery drawer and slam it shut so hard the virgin steak knives clatter point-first into the backboard. No one has ever walked out on me. I stalk over to the couch, put my phone between my teeth. The screen cracks. I look at it, shocked. My spit fractures the screen into tiny Christmas lights.

The apartment is still empty.

I leave my bra on the counter, take my keys from my purse. I pull my coat off its hanger, then kick it into the closet.

He’s at the elevator. The car’s lingering at P1. I jog silent down the carpet to him, keys jangling. My tits are all over the place.

He turns to stare. Me and my breasts bounce down the hall at him.

“This is ridiculous,” I tell him. “Where are you going?”

“I told you,” he whispers, still staring. “I’m sorry, I just-“

“You’re not sorry. Go back inside.” I don’t whisper. Whoever’s home will hear. How bad does it feel to pay? I don’t tip the waiter because he carried my food across the room, I tip him because he made me feel like I’m glittering and generous. Is he staring at my breasts right now because they are exciting or embarrassing?

“Jesus,” he says, he glances around at the doors. Everyone’s eyes at their peepholes.

When I turn, I have his hand. My ass in its thong. It’s gotten bigger, I know. The Croatian who looked like Adrien Brody said, “Promise me you’ll never change it, it’s perfect.” He was my favourite. He wasn’t used to being in his forties. He was too tired to get hard one night, and that was it. Went home to his girlfriend. He’d bought her an Acura. Still, there’s a crinkled patch of skin that didn’t exist two years ago. I’m not used to being in my thirties. I don’t look back, but once I’ve keyed the door open again he’s right behind me. He breathes hot on me, and I shrug him off to deadbolt the door. I glare at him.

“Unbelievable,” I say.

“I’m sorry,” he says, again.

“Take off those fucking shoes.” I sit down on the couch, brush my fucked-up phone to the floor. I run one palm over my pantyline, my thumb over my clit. I lift my eyes up from his crotch. He toes the sneakers off. He hangs up his jacket.

“I live upstairs,” he says. “I got freaked out.”

“So?” I say. His stupid little fear. What would his boss think. What would a fiancée’s mother think. Yes, the smell of loneliness is on him and yes, there’s always the possibility I could make it worse, but look at him.

“Look at you.” I lift my clean arm and he comes to sit under it. I stroke his nape with my fingertips. He turns, leans, and puts his mouth on my breast. He licks at my nipple. He latches onto it, and sucks. I twist my ugly arm to look at the rash: it was the new dog shampoo, or it was poison ivy on my hiking boots from last summer, or it’s a stress reaction. “Probably bubonic, probably fatal,” said my boyfriend, when I cried about it. I covered it in bandages at first but everyone imagined cuts. I should’ve taken more time off. It’s a warzone. Herpetic. They picture me addicted. I once had a client who made me get up and wash my hands every time I touched my pussy. Smilingly convinced of my filth. He made me guess how many times his wife orgasmed on their honeymoon. Fifty-seven. His breath was the most terrible thing about him. Did the woman even know what an orgasm was? Or just what was good for her?

I pet Magda’s ex’s bald head where he rests it under my chin. The skin of his skull is soft and clean. His cock won’t smell of skunk, meat, or rubber. No chemical-floral douchewipe in the driver’s seat. Magda taught him to bathe himself properly. It’s not unusual for me to shower once, then another three or six times in one day. Once for every client, once after a workout, once before I climb into bed with my boyfriend. I soap and shave every fold and rim. I’ve singled out a signature work perfume, cheap and available, to protect my good bottles from scent memory stains. My skin is antibiotic clear. I never bleed with this new birth control. Neither garlic nor beer. When I sweat at the gym I smell like the botanical house at the zoo: some clean tropical beast. One of those magenta zebras that strippers skin for their shawls. I’m a separate species. My body can’t offend. My Juniper satisfies the lowest common denominator. My boyfriend says, “Your pussy really does taste fantastic,” like I’ve achieved something. In the morning, I wake up holding him. I fear for him. He’s so easy to judge.

Magda says Shawn’s mother never calls him. Magda’s in my phone as Michelle, Charley’s in my phone as Jamie, I don’t know Clem’s other names. Shan’s in New York, she asks for her clients’ driver’s licenses and gets them. She charges so much she’ll never stop. I want to stop sometimes, but that’s just bile and if my boyfriend asked me to I’d dump him. At the agency Gilly has girls go on sale like last year’s shoes, girls who play doctor by spraying rubbing alcohol onto erect cocks and looking for the wince of an open sore. When I left, Gilly wrote me a letter of reference: very organized, punctual and hardworking in anything she does. Magda’s 35 and says she’s 29. I weigh 135 but say 122. I made up my measurements but I go on a cleanse when my BMI tips 22. If you count Twitter and the fake name I give when they ask ‘What’s your real name?’ that’s four. Everything is plausible. They just want to know us. They believe the truth bottoms out somewhere, that there’s a glass boat where you can see what scuttles in the algae. I have a mortgage. What else do you want?

Magda’s ex sucks harder at my tit. His sucking is rhythmic and focused. My own pleasure does nothing for me, anymore. I imagine my father-in-law rock-hard in the armchair. The sounds Magda’s ex makes are helpless, abandoned. My old boss. His need weeps wet down my chest. I reach down and finger my panties aside. “That’s good,” I tell him. “Sweetie, I’m soaked.” My little brother’s best friend. The burning skin on my working arm is erased. His cock’s so hard, but I don’t touch it. He sobs. I cradle his head. He’s just a baby. We’re all dumb babies. Watch, I’ll come first. I do.

PAIGE COOPER‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The FiddleheadGulf Coast OnlineMichigan Quarterly Review, Matrix Magazine, and Best Canadian Stories.