Tilly Lawless: Stifling
Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the monthly LGBTQIA storytelling night I host and programme. This week’s story was recorded at a special edition of Queerstories at Volume 2017 Another Art Book Fair at Sydney’s Artspace. Next up – sex worker Tilly Lawless.
I’ve spent so much time in the sun in the last few days deranged. I go to write, and the words have delved from my mind and pulled instead in my underwear in the milky wet of ovulation. It seems my fertility cycle is the only thing that’s functioning, and even though the sun has downed, my mind still pulses with the heat of midday. Who can function in this haze? I want simply to roll from sleep into the crackle of water around my ears, lie back in it just as I lie back on the bed, and beg my lover for orgasms, too lazy and indolent to do anything but lie.
I know up north, the summer will be one long cicada scream with stars alight, but here my feet burn on the pavement, and I don’t want to stir from my sloth. It reminds me of two summers before last when I started at that massage parlour that was a series of boxed in rooms in a terrace. We felt trapped and claustrophobic, like one of her dirty whores shoved away, as my French friend cried onto my shoulder. No windows to see out, the air-con always on too high, so you froze and sneezed all over your lingerie. Goosebumps against tile, bare feet slapping like codfish on the floors.
It was advertised as a massage parlour but it was really more of a brothel, with most of the clients expecting full service, and you having to lower your prices to compete. I remember the interview clearly. I’d shuffled from foot to foot, overly conscious of the sweat running down from my armpits, and hoping the woman wouldn’t notice the ever-deepening patch of it on my body suit.
From behind the desk, high-walled like a fortress came an artillery of speech that bristled outwards and pricked me again and again, each bar with a patronized burr that made the sweat run faster.
“I come from sales, babe, so as far as I’m concerned, I have a product to sell like any other, and this product is pussy. I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make money. You’re not a princess, so don’t come whinging to me about things. You and me are going to work well together, babe. I can tell. You’re young, you’re pretty, you don’t look like you’re on drugs. My shifts are known for having the best, the youngest, the prettiest girls, and I have to keep up to that. My girls are all well educated, they’re all clean, and they’re all scared of me. Everyone’s scared of me, even the clients. Now, you sell the story I tell you, babe. This isn’t your career, you’re only doing it temporarily to get through uni. You never have your period and you never have a boyfriend.”
“Well, all that’s true except for the period bit.”
“Babe, I don’t care. I make up the story, you just sell the story I tell you to sell. Now, I’m an Eastern suburbs snob and I’m happy to admit that. Where are you from, babe?”
“Oh, well, I’m living at Balmain at the moment.”
“I can deal with Balmain. Now, babe, you need to know that it’s competitive here. There are competitive prices. I can put you with the top girls, so you know what they’re charging. Are you open-minded, babe?”
“Yeah, I’d say I was open-minded. I mean-”
“Great. You’ll get along fine if you’re open-minded. And, you know, babe, you don’t have to be open minded with everyone, babe. My girls are selectively open-minded. That’s what we say, “Selectively open-minded.”
The phone rang, but the woman behind the desk didn’t pause her speech to me. She flickered between holding the phone against her clavicle while snapping aside and cradling it tenderly by her ear. “Roger, I have a new girl here, Ruby. You’re going to love her. You know what my girls are like. She’s at Sydney Uni; see how I can sell you, babe? She’s 20 and looks like a gymnast. What’s that? Oh, she’s a horse rider. Oh, I can sell that. I have a lot of horse clients. Size? Turn around, babe. Six to eight, long dark-blonde hair. She’s starting next Thursday. See how I can sell you right in front of you, babe? But I might be able to get her on early for you. Wonderful, wonderful. See you then.”
She hung up, and clacking her acrylics on the edge of the desk, turned to me again. The high walls meant I had to sort of peer over down into the enclave in which the woman sat, telephone line stretching out around her. Each line tremored with information, relaying it to her ’til she aspired a swelling amongst that web of knowledge and intimidation. Do anything in room six and she’ll have known about it down there. Nothing escaped her, just as the slightest twitch of a bug’s felt-capped foot on the furthest reaches of the strands has reverberations in the centre.
“Okay. So, babe, remember I’m not a working girl, I never have been. I come from sales. I’ve sold wines, I’ve sold beauty products, and I see this as the same as any of those. I’m different to other managers. Lots have had their heart eaten out by the industry, but will still pretend to be on your side. Not many will admit that. I will. I’m an Eastern suburbs snob and I’m here to make money. Here’s my personal number. Don’t give it out to anyone ever, but text me if you have any questions before next week. We’re going to make a lot of money together. The exit is just over there. Bye, babe.”
The terrorist had thrown me out into the midday sun and, as always, it was disorientating. Massage parlours are always lit only by artificial light inside, whether it’s because it is true great a privacy risk to have windows letting in the sun, or it’s meant to trick the client into thinking it’s night time, and the sordid infidelities they commit go somehow unnoticed without the clarity of daytime glare. Or, it’s an alternate universe like the movies, where you go into those dank rooms, crunch split popcorn under your feet, and copulate in the back row, and come out squinting your eyes.
I wiped away the sweat that I hadn’t wanted to draw attention to at the time, less because I thought the woman would pounce on weakness, and more because I was scared of the self-proclaimed Eastern suburbs snob judging me for the disgusting country girl that I am, a girl that hasn’t been brought up with beauty treatments, and Spanx, and unseemingly innate knowledge of what to wear on humid days. I didn’t last more than two months at the new place. On the hot summer days when all I wanted was to wake late and swim in the harbour, I instead paced that tiled cube. Unable to socialise with the other girls, and with no WiFi, the 10 to 12 hours were torturously long. Often, I had so many men one after the other that my Subway sandwich went soggy and I lived off Mentos, of which there were bowls upon bowls of, just as there were endless supplies of condoms.
I dug my hand and continued to delve down until I was arm deep, neck deep, over my head in condoms, Mentos, and dick, suffocated in that tiny, tiny room that wasn’t an adequately for sex. Ironically, considering the abundance of condoms, I’ve never been more pressured for natural services. And, in spite of the secretary selling me as a uni student horse rider with a perfect body, the clients soon tired of me when they realised I wouldn’t give anything without.
“All the other girls do.”
“I’m allergic to latex.”
“I think the most important basis of this relationship is trust.”
“I’ll pay you more.”
“I can’t cum with a condom,” bounced back and forth off the walls ’til I left the place beaten down and driven, the one thousand dollars not doing anything to assuage my headache. The receptionist’s rants were a constant barrage that liquified my bowels and churned my stomach as if I were a soup terrine for her to stir and amuse herself with, and spill if she so wished. “Babe, if you were my daughter I would slap you for doing this. I had a clairvoyant come to my house the other day, and she said I am so stressed from handling dirty money. Babe, this is dirty money. She said I need to wash my hands with salt. There’s been too many Leb’ men come through here lately. I hate them. I only send you good, well educated, clean clients. My clients are clean, babe. You can trust me, and they’ll look after you.”
She could taste my fear on the air with her tongue just as a snake can. We all crept like little critters from the kitchen to our hideaways, yet she sensed us all the same. Perhaps I had grown luminescent from all my time locked away, burrowing like a mole after money. I certainly squinted when I was finally released of an evening and clutched the green close to me in clawed hands. I had mined the depths of humanity and worried that money would vanish in the light, like Leprechaun gold.
After a particularly bad client who persisted in fingering me in the arse after I’d said no, with no communal girls’ room to sit and chat about it, and regroup in time for the next booking, I cried in front of her. She was perplexed. “Babe, what is it with you White girls? The whiter you are, the more anxious you are.”
I met a girl there hiding in the kitchen, trying to escape the woman’s gaze as her nose was running from a three-day coke bender, and she didn’t want to draw attention to herself for fear she would crack under criticism. She was beautiful and covered in tattoos, and just brusque enough that I felt like I would be able to warm and melt her between my thighs ’til she dripped like butter. Her work name was Chanelle, and like all working girls with high-fashion or expensive car names, she was a glamour. The Maddys, Chloes, Katies of the sex industry come to work in overalls and tee shirt and rely on their youth to earn their keep. The Mercedes’, Armarnis, and Ferraris are waxed, manicured and motherly. I know that youth doesn’t last but presentation does. She talked big but fucked small. Her coke interest meant she was either coming up or coming down, and I never knew where I stood.
I would drive myself mad analyzing the non-existent pattern in her texts, knowing she was only a few rooms away from me but unable to predict even the smallest behaviour of hers. While I tore my cuticles, she racked, and racked, and racked again, each thought of me stilled by the chem drip at the back of her throat. I soon learned that her world view was riddled with holes like a cheese, yet I still thought I could make a nest in one of those holes and all would be right.
“My two favourite things in life are pussy and pizza,” she would proclaim as she spanked me in front of my friends. Yet, back in my darkened room as I sat her face, “Babe, you’re suffocating me,” would end the passion before it had even begun. I wish I ended it after she hit me in the face in front of a room full of people because it was 5 A.M. and I wasn’t keen to go to a warehouse party after a long night out. The slap rang out but it was delivered by a girl and didn’t fit the picture of intimate partner violence we have painted. Instead, I ended it once she began to ostracize me at work as if a massage parlour were territory to be divided up and crowed over. Maybe it wasn’t just the small rooms that I choked on.