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Poet Stephen Dobyns hires escort and takes her to reading at D.G. Wills in La Jolla

The world you have and the world you want

Michelle and Dobyns

The woman is sexy but very classy. She is tall, about five feet nine, with tousled brown hair. Her skirt and tight white blouse show off her figure in a way to bring about cardiac arrhythmia in youngsters and oldsters alike. She walks as if she owns the very air around her. She is 26 and her measurements are 34-24-34. She calls herself Michelle. She carries a beeper, a cellular phone, and pepper spray on her key ring,

"A lot of the girls have plastic surgery," she tells me, "but I'm completely natural."

She lightly holds my arm as we walk up Girard Avenue in La Jolla to D.G. Wills book shop, where shortly I will be giving a poetry reading with the poet Thomas Lux.

Michelle and author Dobyns enter D.G. Wills bookstore

Michelle and author Dobyns enter D.G. Wills bookstore

The beautiful woman is my date, and I’m paying $300 for the privilege. She moves so gracefully that she could be carrying a stack of poetry books on her finely shaped head. We are fashionably late. As we enter the crowded bookstore there is a crick-crick noise caused by about a hundred folks rapidly turning their heads in the lady’s direction.

Then many of these same people look at me with increased deference and regard.

This, my friends, was the illusion.

Although I’ve published nearly 30 books and have given about 500 readings in 41 of the United States and half a dozen foreign countries, this is the first time I have gone to my own poetry reading with an escort. A new life spreads before me.

But let me go back to the beginning.

Michelle makes appreciative noises after Tom Lux reads. Be quiet, I want to tell her, he’s not paying you.

Michelle makes appreciative noises after Tom Lux reads. Be quiet, I want to tell her, he’s not paying you.

It was the previous Saturday and I was drifting around San Diego thinking about Illusions with a capital I. Like what is happiness and how do we get it?

You know how there are two worlds, the one you have and the one you would like to have? The ragged one with holes and the one that seems shiny and bright? And you know how at times you can feel caught in the space between those two worlds: the one you have and don’t want and the one you don't have and desire? This is what got me into the whole shooting match.

Anyway, I had wandered into a club called the Body Shop — a dark, sultry room with its own ATM machine. I don’t know what the song was but there was a lot of tomtom in it. A girl steps on stage and kicks off her shoes. Maybe she is 19. She wears a silky red dress with enough material for four average-sized handkerchiefs. She keeps rubbing her palms slowly up and down her thighs. Maybe it’s in time to the music but I have forgotten about the music. The dance is like nothing I ever learned in Mrs. Weber’s ballroom dancing class in East Lansing, Michigan, when I was in fifth grade in 1952. Mrs. Weber would have called it showing off. The girl swings round and round one of the two mirrored pillars on the small stage. Then she slowly divests herself of her red dress, dangling it for a moment from one finger, before letting it drift to the tiles. I sit in an area next to the stage that the girls call “the meat rack.” Nearby half a dozen men watch the girl as if they are studying for an exam.

Then I try to analyze what’s going on. Technically, it’s no more than a young woman removing her impractical clothing to loud music. But smeared on top like butter on a bun is the big illusion — that something like this lady might lie ahead in some lucky fellow’s future. Or, at least, this might be his fantasy. So, after another minute, I seek out the management to chat about the illusion aspect of their business.

“It’s not just a visionary illusion,” says Karen, the assistant manager, “but a physical and mental illusion. The women are paid to make the men fed comfortable. Maybe the illusion is just having women being nice to you.”

We are sitting in the club’s small office — a cluttered desk, cases of soft drinks, and several TV monitors showing the action on the floor. Karen has worked at the Body Shop for more than 16 years. She has the sort of dark beauty that makes one’s eyes ache. I was told that she was still one of the best dancers in San Diego. “Damn,” the man added, “in all of California!”

“Once you come through these doors,” Karen tells me, “it’s an adult Disneyland. The men don’t see the girls putting on their makeup or dealing with their children or on their hands and knees scrubbing the floor. Many men want to date a particular girl because she’s an ornament. They don’t care what’s beyond the illusion. It’s like the theater — an actor is not the part they play. What’s the reality? PMS and curlers.” Karen tells me that the club uses 30 girls who work as both dancers and waitresses and receive an hourly minimum plus tips. The tips are the reason for the ATM machine.

“Most of the girls have complete lives outside of the club with husbands and boyfriends. The girls have all sorts of backgrounds, students, artists, you name it. There are girls here whose mothers danced here. For me, as manager, the job’s like baby-sitting, like this is an adult day-care center for young women.”

The Body Shop doesn’t serve liquor, and so the rules governing it are not as stringent as for strip clubs with alcohol. For instance, the girls can be totally nude. Still, the law says that a naked woman can be no closer to a customer than six feet. And she can’t fondle herself. She may gyrate her hips two times, but three times is a no-no. Girls who work where alcohol is served must attend a vice squad orientation session where they learn what is permissible and what isn’t. Any record of prostitution will keep a girl from getting a license.

Karen says the potential for fights is a lot less without liquor. “Once in a while a guy will cross the line and grab a girl. Then we kick him out. Or if a guy says something and the girl is offended, then we ask the guy to leave. But mostly it’s a very low-pressure place. The manager is nice. The girls when they come here have to find a balance between self-esteem and a raging ego. Just like any business, someone’s going to try to play the queen bee.”

I ask Karen about the men who come here.

“Students, businessmen, they come from all backgrounds. If they’ve had a bad day at the office, they can come in here and be whoever they want — self-confident, cool, poised — whatever sort of person that they’re not when they’re on the other side of the door. You see a side of men that the bosses and wives and friends never see. You see stuff that’s very jading. You see someone who you know is married asking out a waitress. The girls in these establishments talk to each other and compare stories, so it all comes out. So you become more careful in your personal life. And if you keep your eyes open, you become less gullible, which is good as long as you don’t become a man-hater. There’s a fine line between being paranoid and aware.”

As for those two worlds again: the world you have and the world you’d like to have. If the distance between them is small, then you’re a happy guy. If the two worlds are far apart, then you’re a sad sack and you brood a lot on how to bridge the gap. Even the beautiful girls will try to bridge the gap between the world they think they have and the world they think they want.

“I’m amazed at what some of these girls will have doctors do,” says Karen, referring to their expensive trips to plastic surgeons for boob-jobs, lip-jobs butt-jobs etc. “And they go back again and again. But unless you have happiness within you, there’s nothing a doctor can do to make you any better.”

And where is happiness to be found?

“I’m sure happiness is out there,” Karen tells me. “I’m a hopeless romantic. I don’t blame others for the mistakes in my life. The spark that keeps everyone pushing forward — I believe it exists. It certainly has existed in my life.”

The trick, according to Karen, is not to believe the illusion that is saying Believe Me!

“I’ve met some of my best friends in the world in this club, both men and women. But these were men and women who weren’t caught up in the illusion of what was going on here.” To get “caught up” means to forget that it is an illusion. The illusion is as necessary as salt and pepper, but to believe it as truth Is the road to psychosis.

“Without the illusion, there wouldn’t be...” Karen pauses to wonder what there wouldn’t be. “What would Disneyland be without Mickey Mouse? What would we be without the illusion of attractive women? It’s an illusion but it’s also a comfortable atmosphere. It’s a necessary escape.

“For many people the illusion can get out of hand. There’s nothing you can do but keep an eye out. No one has a neon sign that says, 'My illusion is getting out of hand!’ A guy who lets the illusion get away from him can become a stalker.”

There is the dream and there is the illusion. The dream says that happiness is possible. The illusion says that it is possible right here at the Body Shop. And what is the dream?

“It’s to be accepted and to accept,” says Karen, “to love and be loved — the unconditional. It’s the magic you strive for. It’s out there and it can be found. If I didn’t believe in happiness, I’d be miserable. Without hope, there’s nothing.”

I look at Karen across her cluttered desk. For a moment her beauty rises above daily good looks to something that makes the earth shiver on its axis. Were we near a ballroom, I would surely ask her to dance. But that is the illusion. “The spark that keeps everyone pushing forward,” she called it. It’s time for me to go.

Out on stage the music doesn’t stop, and one girl follows another without a break from when the doors open in the morning until they dose at night. There are no windows, no sense that time is passing. The girls work eight-hour shifts, four shifts per week. I stand at the door watching a girl who is naked except for a thin gold chain around her waist. Surrounding her coccyx is a garish red-and-blue tattoo showing the biological symbol for woman, just in case I had any doubts.

Outside, I talk to Richard, who is working the door. He has been at the club for 13 years and has been in the business a total of 25. He is scornful of my questions. Illusion? Happiness? What the hell’s that? He has a tough street-look about him, the look of a fellow who can’t be fooled.

“This is a men’s club,” Richard tells me. “It’s a meeting place. Men talk to each other here who don’t talk to each other at other places. It’s not about sex. It’s an entertainment business. It’s cheap. A place that sells alcohol can set you back a lot of money.”

But what about the illusion? I ask.

“You can have fantasies here,” says Richard, “but you can also have fantasies at the movies. You go to a titty bar to see something beautiful, something entertaining. And you’re with men who are enjoying the same damn thing. The men talk to one another, and what do they talk about? They talk about the girls.”

But for Richard, the industry, as he calls it, has changed tremendously in ten years. It has become respectable. The reason for that change is table dancing.

“It’s one girl being an industry of dancing for one guy for the length of one song,” he says. “Table dancing has changed this business into a profitable business. A girl can make $200 a night for four nights, but the high end is $150,000 — not here but up north. Twenty bucks a table dance, and a girl can do 12 to 15 songs an hour, 30 to 40 a night. That’s big money.

“Ten years ago you never saw a mother or father bringing their girl to work. Now it’s common. Now most of the girls’ families know what they’re doing. This is a hard job. It destroys their social life working nights. The girls go home right after work. They get up early and work out. They don’t do drugs and you don’t see alcoholics.

“A nicer type of girl shows up to work. At first they’re horrified. Then they take off their clothes and they say, This is nothing!’ It becomes a business. Then, for some, it becomes an art.

“So the businessmen up-classed these businesses in order to make money and get a better class of clientele. And because of that, they got a better class of woman — no drugs, no drunks. And the girls have acceptability. They spend their money more on their lifestyles. 'They look good. You go around to these titty bars and they all look good. It’s no longer a sleazeball business. You come for tits and ass, but each place has a different environment. They make money!”

And the illusion?

“I’m not here for the girls,” says Richard. “I’m here because it pays me well. Sure you have your favorite girls. What can I say? I tip bartenders. I tip valets. I tip dancers.”

The illusion behind the illusion is that the distance between the world you have and the world you want can be breached and that happiness can be achieved. But this world that you dream about having, how much of it is merely fantasy?

I decide that I need a scholarly gun, so I talk to Leon Rosenstein, who teaches aesthetics at San Diego State. I ask him about the quest for beauty and happiness. “It’s certainly nothing new,” he tells me. “The ancient Greeks had it too. 'The belief that beauty is eternal goes back to Plato. People are always looking for the ultimate satisfaction, which for many is to be admired and loved. And they feel that if they are beautiful enough then they will be sufficiently admired and loved. The quest for physical beauty—I don’t think California is unique in that respect, but often people here are more excessive with their gyms and plastic surgeons.”

Aha, I think, surely a plastic surgeon can tell me about the illusion of beauty. Aren’t they the very bridge builders of beauty? There are 101 listings for plastic surgeons in the San Diego phone book and in no time I am talking to William G. Taylor, M.D., F.A.C.S., a specialist in cosmetic surgical arts whose business slogan reads “Let me taylor your bust.”

“I do more than 50 percent of my work in breast enlargement,” Dr. Taylor tells me. “Some of the women are exotic dancers, some come from Las Vegas. Actually, they come from all over. There are certain standards of beauty that have to do with proportions, planes, and lines. Perhaps a plastic surgeon has an inborn capacity to work with them. Sometimes I say to a woman, ‘Maybe you don’t want those 500 cc implants in your breasts because you won’t be proportionate.’

“Five hundred cc’s is an awfully big implant. After all, a pint is 470 cc’s. That’s one pint per breast. I recommend to patients that they choose implants to go with their body size. Then I put a number of different size implants on the desk in front of them and they pick the size they want.”

Dr. Taylor describes his prices “in the middle to the low end of the range — breast implants can run in the low to middle four thousands.

“I’ve been doing plastic surgery for 37 years. For the last 11 years I’ve been doing just cosmetic surgery, although on my own and in my spare time I go off to places like Afghanistan and Central America to do reconstruction on things like cleft lips and cleft palates.

“I like doing cosmetic surgery. People are tremendously grateful. By changing peoples’ bodies you give them the tools and ability to feel good about themselves. There is no question but that a straight-line relationship exists between how you see yourself and how you think others see you. Some peopie can develop a gnawing anxiety and a sense of being ugly. We tell them that cosmetic surgery won’t solve your problems, though it may improve your attitude so that you can work on your problems more effectively. The surgery won’t necessarily make you happy, though it can lead to a sense of inner contentment which will improve your quality of life. As a result it is very common for a person’s mental attitude to change along with the physical changes. One man told me, ‘What you did for my wife’s tits is great, but what you did for the space between her ears is tremendous.’ These people who have had cosmetic surgery can have a remarkable sense of contentment about themselves.”

But this doesn’t work with everybody, and Dr. Taylor grumbles about “Plastic surgery junkies — people who get all sorts of stuff done to them.”

“Some people, who many would already find beautiful, will never feel beautiful. They have a deep-seated sense of their own ugliness — I don’t like to work on them. They never feel satisfied no matter what you do. Their problems are psychological, not physical.

“But it behooves the plastic surgeon to gauge each person individually, rather than apply to everyone the same standard of beauty. Sometimes a patient will come in with a nice-looking nose which they think has a hump on it. There’s nothing wrong with that nose, but the person won’t feel better until it’s changed. Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, to give you the old cliche, but the best beauty arises out of the center of the soul. I’ve seen people who didn’t have all the standard parameters of beauty but who still glowed because they had a positive attitude and other people liked to be around them.”

Dr. Taylor and other plastic surgeons will tailor your body to fit your imagined needs. Clergymen and spiritual advisors will tailor your soul. Psychiatrists and psychologists will tailor your psyche. But I keep thinking of Karen’s “spark that keeps everyone pushing forward.” Who works to tailor the spark?

So I talk to Mistress Madison, a San Diego-based dominatrix who runs “a fantasy-service catering to open-minded adults.”

A red-haired, cigar-smoking beauty, Mistress Madison has run for Congress and advocates an end to foreign aid and the total transfer of social services to the private and nonprofit sector. She also believes that the death penalty should be swiftly enforced and that “chain gangs should clean up our highways, byways, and toxic dumps.” Perhaps as a dominatrix she has a special fondness for chain gangs.

I ask her about illusion and the path to happiness.

“My husband and I have discussed this,” she tells me, “and we both feel that in the ’90s relationships tend to be more transactional.”

Transactional, I say, what’s that?

“I mean that if you want my time you have to pay for it. You always know where you are in a transactional relationship.”

So perhaps that world you lack, perhaps it’s only money that keeps it at a distance.

“I deal with kink,” Mistress Madison tells me. “I do a $60 consultation and then we go from there. It all depends on how elaborate it is. I specialize in fantasy. People come to me because they’re into feet or into spanking or cross-dressing or exhibitionism, or sometimes people will take me to a major art opening or a dinner. I specialize in power exchange. People want to relinquish control from their everyday lives, they totally want to surrender control.”

So perhaps it is a person’s need to feel in control that leads to unhappiness. I ask the Mistress if this is possible.

“I deal with people who are into complicated head trips.

My people come from all walks of life, and they just want to surrender. To give up. Everybody I’ve seen has been absolutely wonderful. I have nothing negative to say about any of them. Some are celebrities, some are athletes or doctors or lawyers or businessmen. Some are Harvard or Yale graduates. They just want to surrender and find someone they can be perfectly comfortable with. Nine times out of ten the people who are hiring are very, very nice. There’s always one percent that doesn’t work, but most of the time they’re very decent. Sometimes I get calls from people who want to make their ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends jealous, but I don’t partake of that. I don’t like that. If you can’t deal with a relationship from a totally honest aspect then it’s not worth it, and a transactional relationship is perfectly honest because you have already signed a contract.” Mistress Madison believes that the spark that keeps everyone pushing forward can find its greatest achievement in contracts, in the transaction, in money exchanged. She says she has been in the business for seven years. Before becoming a dominatrix she worked in an escort service.

“People go out with an escort,” Mistress Madison tells me, “because they want to feel connected with somebody. They don’t want to fight with anybody or have any disagreements. They just want to know it’s a sure thing. I would have to say, depending on the individual, every man would love to have a beautiful woman on his arm. In addition, perhaps some men want someone with mental and emotional substance, someone with a brain. So the guy picks the kind of glamour that he wants. Some agencies will fax out photos of what the girls look like. When men hire an escort they are far, far more honest with her than they are with the women they date. When men date, they tend to lie and show off and talk about sex right away, but with an escort their behavior is far more up-front and responsible.” Mistress Madison tells me that there are about 60 escort services in San Diego, as opposed to Las Vegas, the capital of the business, where the Yellow Pages contain 110 pages listing entertainers and escorts.

“In San Diego an escort never takes her clothes off,” says Mistress Madison, “but if she has a dancer’s license then she can take off her clothes when she dances. But even that is strictly regulated.”

I had assumed that a certain percentage of escorts in San Diego were also prostitutes, but Mistress Madison assures me this is not the case, that no prostitution is involved.

So I talk to Detective Gary Reichle of the San Diego Police Department’s vice administration to get a better idea of what an escort does.

“As an escort service, a business can simply provide a companion, go to dinner or whatever,” says Reichle. “In actuality, most escort activity is an adult-entertainment activity: nude modeling or dancing. Everyone who works as an escort has to be licensed by the city. The high majority, 90 percent, also have nude-entertainment permits. They go to hotels and to homes. 'There has been some prostitution. It does come up. I can’t talk about that. Over the years we have revoked the licenses of escort services that have engaged in prostitution, but we regularly inspect them by sending in a policeman posing as a customer.

“For both nude entertainment and escort, the men and women must go through an orientation program sponsored by our department about the dos and don’ts for nude dancing and escort services. 'The escort has to provide the name and address of every person who hires them. There are certain standards that could be cause for denying those permits. Prior convictions for prostitution will keep a girl from getting a license.”

An escort service, it would seem, provides the perfect transactional relationship, permitting the illusion of beauty and romance without physical complications. I decide to leant more.

The first five places I call have only answering machines. Then I reach a woman at Wet & Wild Escorts. I ask, “How are illusion and allure and romance an aspect of your business?”

“Sorry,” the woman says. “I have to keep the line open for customers.” She hangs up.

I call All American Escorts. A woman answers. I ask, “How are illusion and allure and romance an aspect of your business?”

“They really aren’t,” she tells me. “Sorry about that.” Then she gives a little laugh and hangs up.

I call Dare to Desire Escorts. A man answers. I ask my question, which, even to my ears, has come to sound impossibly silly.

“I really can’t say,” he tells me, “since I’m not doing the business.” Then he talks to a woman nearby and asks if she wants to talk to me.

When she gets on the line, I try to improve my question: Do you think there is a discrepancy between the image you present and the actuality?

“Sometimes,” she says. “We try not to have that happen but it happens. Illusion and allure are a part of our business. We sell beauty here. That’s our product. The illusion hopefully turns out not to be an illusion. Men call up for an escort to any kind of a social event, but our girls will also do totally nude dancing and modeling of lingerie. Sometimes the customers may be hoping for more than just dancing or lingerie modeling, but I make it clear right at the beginning that there’ll be none of that. In other cities you call an escort service and you’ve got a pretty good chance to get laid, but not in San Diego. If a girl gets in any trouble, she’s fired. But we’ve got tons of regulars who call again and again. Half of our customers are from the San Diego area and half are from out of town.”

After I hang up, I think about the “illusion that hopefully turns out not to be an illusion.” I call several more services and shortly I am talking to a woman who works for a service called Ecstasy. She tells me that Ecstasy’s rates are standard: $150 cash by the hour or $175 on credit card, of which the escort gets half.

“I would definitely say that illusion is a major part of our business,” she tells me.

“There’s only one reason to go out with a beautiful escort and that’s for the gentleman to impress his friends and family. It’s very common for a gentleman to call up and ask for an escort in order to invite her to a family function. We help men give the illusion that they are with someone impressive, that they are the sort of man who can be with a beautiful woman.

“Services like ours have three types of license: escort licenses, exotic-dancing license, and massage license. It’s common for a dancer to have all three licenses, but not the escorts, since they provide more of a social function. They don’t dance or do massage. But, as you say, there’s a big illusion. The illusion is that sex is available, because that’s not what happens. If there is an illusion, then it’s the gentleman who has it. Sex is definitely impossible. You get those questions. I don’t get offended when a gentleman asks for sex because at least he’s being honest and I tell him that the laws here are very strict. One man was telling me that in L.A. the women from the escort services will do anything, but I tell him it’s not like that in San Diego.”

So I think. Would I be happier if I were walking down the street with a beautiful woman on my arm? I mean, a transactional beautiful woman?

This is how it happens that two days later I am walking down Girard Avenue in l.a Jolla with Michelle on my arm. She works for a company called Dare to Desire and I’ve bought two hours of her time.

Michelle has been in the business for three years. At first she also danced, but she never liked it. "It can turn into a real zoo,” she tells me. She is from a small farming community in the Midwest and she went to college in St. Louis.

I ask Michelle what she likes about the work other than the money.

“You go to nice restaurants. You travel some. You experience things you wouldn’t experience otherwise. I travel anywhere anybody’s willing to pay me to travel to. I went to Cancun once, St. Louis, Dallas, Phoenix, San Francisco, L.A. The man will put me up in a hotel room. It’s always a hotel and I always have my own room. I don’t care if it’s a Motel 6 or a Marriott. When I travel out of town with a man I have ten hours a day by myself — that’s eight hours of sleep, an hour to shower, and an hour to work out — and the rest of the day, the remaining 14 hours are his. They pay me by the hour there too, but it’s $100 an hour. I get $1400 a day and they have me for 14 hours each day. Even if they don’t use me they still have to pay for that time, because I’m out of town — you know, not here — they pay from the moment I step on the airplane to the moment I step off the airplane.”

Do they ask to have sex with you? I ask.

“Of course. But if I’m traveling with someone, I know that person fairly well. I don’t just, like, have a guy call me up from Phoenix and have me come out there. It’s someone that I’ve become very familiar with here in San Diego. That person knows that sex is not what I do. Although I think they always hope that that will occur eventually.”

I think of these men and their hopes. What do they imagine? I ask Michelle.

“Most of them want to pretend for an evening that I’m their girlfriend and they want other people to believe it as well — that’s part of the fantasy, to have other people believe it. It makes them feel as if they’ve got what they want. I get all different types of customers. Some guys have greet social lives, a lot of friends, careers, but for whatever reason — maybe they’re too busy — they don’t want a relationship. It’s not convenient. And this is an easy way for them to have an enjoyable evening with a lady. So we have this fantasy. We’re putting on a show. I’m acting as if I’m someone’s lover—even though that’s not what’s occurring—and everyone else believes it as well. It’s a game. Some guys, maybe 50 percent, will pretend they’re a doctor for the evening or a lawyer or somebody important with a beautiful woman on his arm. And these guys are spending a lot of money to pretend to be a doctor so I go along with it.

“A lot of these guys are into a whole fantasy. Some have money and some don’t, but some get really addicted to you. And if they don’t have the money and they get addicted, then they have to see you again even though there’s been no sexual contact of any kind — maybe they think that you’ll finally fall for them — so this can go on until they have run out of money. So they end up spending their rent money, and they get really pissed off because I don’t do freebies, and this is a professional relationship, because I have a private life and I have a boyfriend and I’d never date a person who paid me, though sometimes I might go out with a regular for free on his birthday.

“I have a couple of guys that I’ve seen for a couple of years and who have friends they’ve introduced me to and who think I’m their girlfriend. It’s sort of sad. It seems they’re painting themselves into an emotional corner. I mean, what are their friends going to think when they don’t see me anymore — that we’ve broken up? I’ve been introduced to their families. I’ve been flown around the country to meet family members. I hate that. I hate being introduced to somebody’s mother as his girlfriend, but it’s part of the job.

"A lot of times it can be fun going out to restaurants and parties, but some of these guys have social-conduct problems, which is why they can’t get a date in the first place. A lot of times I’ve been embarrassed to death, not by my regulars, with them it’s like getting paid to hang out with a friend. But often I get someone who has a lot of money and he’ll get completely intoxicated and be rude to the staff of the restaurant and be rude to me. This one guy was already tanked when I met him and was rude to everyone and he didn’t even leave a tip at this expensive restaurant. So I went back later and tipped the staff myself. I wanted to tell the guy to cool his jets but I couldn’t do that. If we get a complaint, then we don’t get work for a week. That’s how they punish us.

“But I’d say one in four calls that I do are regulars. Maybe not my own regular, but someone who goes to the agency frequently. Some of these guys want to see a different girl every week. Some guys want to see the same girl every week. I have my own clientele that’s regular. Probably one or two nights a week I’m seeing someone that I see on a regular basis. This job is putting me through school and it pays for my lifestyle, which is not extravagant, but I couldn’t make this kind of money doing anything else right now and have as much free time as I do.”

Michelle is a graduate student in speech pathology and audiology. She hopes to get her degree this year.

“I’m thinking I’m more inclined to work in the audiology arena instead of speech pathology. Doing hearing tests, prescribing hearing aids, working with children who’ve had cochlear implants, teaching them speech, teaching hearing-impaired children to read lips and basically to function in the hearing world. I’d like to work with the deaf. I had a speech impediment when I was younger and had to go through several years of therapy, so that made me interested.”

By now we are approaching the bookstore. The sun has set. A few people are waiting outside for the poet to arrive. About 75 others are already seated. Talking to Michelle, I find that much of my shyness has disappeared. While still a beautiful woman, she has also become familiar.

But this changes as I enter the bookstore. I see friends. I see former students. I am no longer simply a poet: I am a man accompanied by a stunningly beautiful woman. It is like being accompanied by a bright light. And whatever I do, whatever I say, whatever poems I read will be brightened by that light. In fact, in Michelle’s company, I feel I could say “Doo-dah, doo-dah” and it would still sound great.

The bookstore is a mass of clutter with the audience tucked between bookcases and beneath teetering stacks. I feel certain that at other poetry readings, unsuspecting fans have been crushed by falling encyclopedias. Even though I’ve given many poetry readings, I feel anxious as I stand by the cash register and prepare to read.

Michelle sits behind me and to my right. She looks as if she has done this a thousand times. I expect that even in an earthquake she would look cool and collected. Again I have the sense that the light of her beauty is brightening my work. Her presence is equal to an extensive revision process. She makes my work sound better. Or at least this is the illusion. She laughs at the places where the audience is expected to laugh. She looks serious at the philosophical bits, sad during the sad bits. I think, Why haven’t I brought an escort to my readings before? Perhaps I could even get her picture on the covers of my books. In fact, she doesn’t act like an escort—whatever that might be. She is doing a perfect job of replicating my idea of the perfect listener. This — in fantasy — is the person for whom I have been writing for 40 years. Under her regard each of my poems becomes electric in my ears. There exists no gap between what I have and what I want. The two worlds are perfectly superimposed on one another.

Except of course for that additional detail: Michelle is getting paid $300 to listen to my poems. Still, it feels good. It feels like something I could grow to need.

The reading comes to an end. Even the applause is increased by Michelle’s presence — I’m sure of it. Several dozen decibels are due to her alone. People look from me to her and then back again — it’s as if we have one shared face.

But when Thomas Lux reads from his New and Selected Poems it’s not like that. Lux’s poems are so good that when he reads no one looks at the lady. Even Michelle makes appreciative noises. Be quiet, I want to tell her, he’s not paying you.

Later, on our way out the door, I introduce Michelle to half a dozen people. She smiles and looks charming. My dear friend, I call her. My old pal. No one protests. No lightning strikes me down. Men and women look at her admiringly. And they look at me admiringly as well. We are special. We are beautiful together.

Back on the street, I walk Michelle to her car. The palms waft above us; the air smells of salt. There is a sweetness to the illusion, but it is an illusion nonetheless. After all, this is a transactional relationship. I feel that I need to know more about the dark side of her business. Is it possible for a man to become addicted to an escort?

“Oh, yeah, that happens frequently,” she tells me. “All the girls have that happen to them. A lot of these guys want what they can’t have and they aren’t willing to compromise. They aren’t willing to meet someone with whom they could actually have a relationship. Instead, they have a fantasy about what women are like. We fulfill that fantasy. I mean, I can dress nice or I can dress trashy. I can act whatever part they want me to act to fulfill that fantasy for them. And maybe this is something they will never be able to attain in their normal lives and they can’t get beyond that and it’s what they want. So they have to pay for it and they like it and it’s like a drug. They have to do it after a while. Oh, it gets very expensive. It’s a luxury that most people cannot afford. As you can plainly see, two hours at S300. If they’re regulars and they’re booking all the time, we give them discounts, but even that’s very expensive. Sometimes I go to their house and we rent a movie. We’ll share a pizza. I’ve done everything. Three hundred dollars for two hours I consider to be a lot of money. Even wealthy people probably do.”

But Michelle looks forward to quitting. Once she gets her degree in speech pathology and audiology. She plans to return to the Midwest, get married to her boyfriend, and settle down.

“You can’t do this forever. I mean, everybody gets old. This is something that you can do in your 20s and it’s...” She pauses. We stand for a moment under a palm tree. “I have a little bit of trouble with the business being.... She hesitates again, "I don’t think it’s completely moral.

“When I first started doing it, I thought it was really cool. I was meeting some high rollers and I thought it was really the greatest thing, but I’ve seen people get their feelings hurt. I’ve seen people wanting what they can’t have and people who can’t handle this fantasy that they’re playing and, those people, well, I think it’s wrong to take their money after a while.

“If someone’s just doing it to have a nice evening, they don’t know anybody in town and they’re treating themselves to this, then it’s okay. But that’s not what it is for the regulars. They really want to have a relationship with you. And you’re kind of extorting money from them, that’s the way I look at it, and I’m not comfortable with doing that forever.

“I’m very, very honest with the people that I see. I tell them exactly what I do, so they know what’s up. But somewhere in their head they don’t really get it. Of course, they.think they will and when they first start seeing me it’s okay and they understand. But after a while you get to be friends with someone, even though this is a professional relationship, and they always hope for more, and I’m tired of disappointing people. When you get to know someone...like if I saw you 10 or 12 times and I really liked you and I had fun with you. A, I’d feel bad for taking your money, and B, you don’t want what I’m offering you. I mean, obviously, otherwise you wouldn’t be seeing me as often as you would. So, I have a problem with that. I mean. I’m not having sex with the clients or anything. It’s not that I think prostitution is wrong — I think prostitution should be legalized, actually. It’s just not my gig.

“But this is a job where people get their feelings hurt quite frequently and you really have to confront the situation and I hate confronting it. Just imagine if you had people all the time who wanted to have sex with you and you have to say, ‘I think you’re a very nice guy and I enjoy your company but it’s not what I do.’ I’ve had guys cry. I’ve had guys beg. I’ve had guys offer me outrageous amounts of money, and it’s a hard thing to do.”

I ask Michelle if she has ever felt in danger.

“A few times, a few times. Mostly the danger was when I was dancing, and that’s why I quit dancing. What I do now is almost always in a social situation. There are always people around and it’s not too dangerous. But I’ve had some dangerous situations, I had a guy who tried to kidnap me and take me down to Mexico. When he stopped to get gas, I jumped out of his car. I locked myself in the john and called the cops on my cellular phone. Now we’re not allowed to get in a car with anybody. And I had a guy stalk me two and a half years ago when I first started doing this. He’d been a prominent lawyer here in town and I made the mistake of letting him into my life just a little bit. He took that as a sign that I was interested in having a special relationship with him. And I wasn’t. He figured out where I lived. One evening he thought I was home when I wasn’t home and he went up and knocked on the door. My roommate didn’t know what I did for a living — I had never told her — and I guess he kind of scared her (she laughs). So I h^d to get a restraining order against him and I stopped seeing him.

“But there have been guys who I’ve seen over a long period of time, and they’ve finally figured that, hey. I’ve paid all this money.... And when you’ve added it up, it’s thousands of dollars that they’ve spent and they’ve never gotten laid. They’ve never gotten a kiss. The've never gotten any of the things they’ve been hoping for and they get mad. Anger is one way it comes out. Some guys get really hurt, some guys get depressed, whatever. That’s not to say that all the guys are like that. I meet a lot of people who just want to have a good time for the evening, who are in from out of town, and that’s fine. That’s fun. We go out to a nice restaurant, some nice clubs. I know the town very well. Whatever you like to do, I can find it for you. I can plan out your whole evening, I can plan out every night for you for the whole time you’re here. That’s fun for me. But the guys who fly into town just to see me and spend their money—that’s a hard thing to take.”

I ask Michelle the inevitable question. If she had a daughter, would she want her daughter doing what she is doing?

“If she had her head on straight, then I wouldn’t have any problem with it. But something that happens to a lot of girls who get into this business is that they’re led astray by the money. They do things they normally wouldn’t do for money, and they feel had about themselves for doing it. Or they’ll get wound up in drugs. There's a lot of drugs in this business. Someone I used to live with was doing this and she messed herself up good because, well, the guys are always offering drugs. That’s another way that they try to get you to have sex with them. They are hoping that you like drugs and they’ll use the drugs to manipulate you. Unless you’re a really smart person about how you handle yourself, you can get yourself in trouble.

“If I had a daughter who wanted to do this, if she was doing what I’m doing — paying her way through school, saving some money, planning for her future — then I wouldn’t have a problem, as long as she had a good sense about people. I have a very good sense about people and I’m less likely to get in trouble than someone else would. So if she was doing this in that way, then I’d be fine with it. If she was doing this for the drug habit, like a lot of people are, or if she was getting some kind of weird, sick kick off of it — like some of the women I work with who don’t like men— then that would be a problem. At least 80 percent of the women are bisexual, if not lesbian. And many like the fact that they’re taking your money and they’ll say. Hey, I just took advantage of that guy. And they’re proud of it. That's not right, and I wouldn’t want my daughter doing that.”

And that’s our evening. The meter’s up. Michelle lets me kiss her on the cheek and we shake hands. She climbs into her trim Japanese car and backs out onto the street. As she drives off, I see her hand reach from the window. She gives me a little wave — delicate white fingers illuminating the darkened street. Our transaction is over and it’s back to the real world.

But it’s not quite over. A few days later I’m in Coronado talk ing to an ex-stripper by the name of Rachel. Maybe I shouldn’t call her an ex-stripper. It was only something she did for a while. She is blonde, beautiful, and 29. And I think the gulls that are circling and screaming above us must be screaming for her. I ask her if being a stripper affected her in any way.

“It fucked up my femininity,” she tells me. “It made me pushy and aggressive. It made me masculine. And I couldn’t do anything like smile or be nice or be friendly without putting a price tag on it. Nothing was natural anymore. I couldn’t do anything without thinking about it. It was all commerce. It took a king time to get over it In fact, maybe I’m still not over it even today."

The spark that keeps everyone pushing forward. Illusion, I think, what a confusion.

— Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns has been a reporter for the Detroit News and is the author of nine volumes ofpoetry and t9 novels, the most recent Saratoga Strongbox (Penguin Putnam).

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