Kelly sprints out of the hotel, carrying her luggage. I don’t even recognize her.
Kelly (not her real name) was always a beach babe, brown hair with sun-kissed highlights, skinny with curves. This girl running out of the Ontario Holiday Inn at midnight is a bleached blonde with extensions that are noticeably fake. Plus, she’s wearing pajamas. Pink flannel with elephants on them. Wow. Is she serious?
We jet out of the hotel parking lot. “I need a cigarette,” Kelly rasps. She already reeks of smoke. Her makeup looks like she slept with it on. The fake lashes are hanging off her eyelids.
The entire drive back home to San Diego is dominated by Kelly’s blabbering. She’s on drugs. Textbook speedy.
“I hope they don’t find me,” she says, “’cause they’ll hurt me.”
“Tomorrow, we’re gonna figure it out,” says her mother, who is also in the car. “You gotta stay away from these people. We’ll get you checked into a hospital. We’ll delete your Facebook, clear your contacts in your phone. You gotta get away.”
Am I going to be here for all of this? Scary people, detox, and psych wards. I feel like I am taping an episode of Intervention.
Kelly’s mom says to me, “Jessie, I need you to stay at our apartment tonight. She could slip out the front with my bedroom door closed.” I feel obligated; we didn’t go through all this effort so Kelly could run on her first night back in Rancho Peñasquitos.
Kelly and I met in high school. She was spontaneous and fun. Our sophomore year, while at a kickback, a guy one year older slipped something in her drink. She was raped that night. Though she seemed relatively unaffected by the incident, she tried to prosecute the boy that raped her. The harassment she experienced at school led her to dismiss the case. Nobody believed her. She moved on, but it changed who she was. Guys in high school looked at her as easy. Kelly thrived on the attention.
In September 2009, we went to Silver Strand State Beach to party. Kelly and I teamed up and played beer pong, substituting shots of vodka. Random guys and inebriated girls wasn’t a great equation, but nothing happened. The next morning, we woke up with blaring headaches. The RV smelled like marijuana. I asked myself, What the hell am I doing with these people?
We stopped talking after Silver Strand. It upset me to end the friendship. But I was a full-time dental assistant, and Kelly was working minimum-wage, partying her life away.
In June 2010, I got a message on Facebook:
“Hey Jess, hope all is well… Please keep Kelly in your prayers, I don’t know why she is doing all of this, who would have ever imagined. She needs as many prayers as she can get, I know this is really random. Mary” (not her real name).
I called Kelly’s mom.
“Hi, Karen! It’s me, Jessie.” This was really awkward.
“Oh, Jess! Oh, God, Jess. Our lives have been a living hell.”
That evening, I met Karen (not her real name) at Starbucks in Carmel Mountain. We greeted each other with a tight embrace. I had a lump in my throat. It was going to be bad.
“Jessie, she’s been whorin’ herself out on the streets with these low-life pimps.” Karen had watery eyes. “It’s been months now.”
The information wasn’t registering in my brain. Kelly, a prostitute? Nope. No way. This stuff happens on El Cajon Boulevard. Not to us, not in suburbia. Getting crazy to us had once meant high-school parties where the parents weren’t home.
I suggested to Karen that we call Kelly. We walked to my car, because the locals in Starbucks probably didn’t want to overhear that conversation.
We dialed tons of combinations. Prostitutes change their numbers weekly, or even more often. They don’t want police, family, or ex-pimps to track them. Finally, we got through. It rang and rang, until the call was forwarded to a voicemail that wasn’t set up. We kept trying. When Kelly finally answered, Karen immediately put the phone on speaker.
“Sis, it’s Mom. Before you hang up, I love you so much, and your brothers and father and I want the best for you and will help you get out of this. Where are you?” Karen’s voice was firm, but she was desperate.
“Mom, I’m so depressed. I need to get out of here. I’m kinda far away, though.”
This was not the Kelly I knew. She sounded broken — I could hear it through the phone. I couldn’t back away. I felt compelled to help this desperate girl and her frantic mom.
It was 9:00 p.m. By this time on a weeknight, I was usually saying goodnight to my younger brothers and parents and tucking myself into bed, wearing silk sleepwear from Victoria’s Secret. Sometimes, I stayed up to catch the news. But instead of my cushy life at home, I was on my way to pick up my prostitute BFF from a hotel in Ontario.
Karen’s boyfriend drove.
“Jess, I’m going to warn you,” Tom said, and I immediately went into oh-shit mode. I was thinking that we were too far up the 15 for me to bail on this thing, hoping that the 20 percent left on my iPhone battery would last long enough for a save-me call to Mom and Dad.
“Kelly will not be the same,” said Tom (not his real name). “She’s probably going to be on drugs. She’s platinum-blonde. She’s also kind of ghetto.”
Oh, ghetto fabulous? I’d seen those girls at Plaza Bonita. So, Kelly would be straight out of a Lil’ Wayne video? It was too strange. How did she go from beach-preppy to ghetto fab?
The roughed-up blonde that runs out of the hotel in Ontario is not a video vixen from MTV. She is drug-skinny.
I’d imagined she’d be like the prostitutes in movies, like Pretty Woman. I thought I was prepared to see her. But nothing can get you ready to see someone in this condition.
Back at the apartment complex in Rancho Peñasquitos, Kelly and I sit in the family room on the dark-green couches, the place where we were regulars in high school.
“Let’s catch up,” I say. “We have so much to talk about!” I don’t know where to start the conversation. “So…what happened? Why? How?”
“This guy hit me up on Myspace, and he was so good to me. He was my boyfriend.”
Oh, my God! I remember him. On our way to that Silver Strand party, way back when, Kelly had said she’d gotten a message from some random guy telling her how beautiful she was. I told her he was a total creep and then I forgot about it. I didn’t think there was a chance in hell she would actually meet him.
“My mom kicked me out of her house, ’cause I was partying too much,” Kelly says. “So I was on the streets.”
I feel guilty. If I’d stuck around one more week, possibly I could have helped her.
“He said ’cause I was pretty, I should do this job and make a lot of money. All I had to do was go on dates with rich guys, and dress up, and I’d get paid.”
She explains that Mr. Myspace took her to some apartments in Mission Valley. An entire section of the complex was rented out by an escort agency. A woman ran the operation. Several girls lived in each of the rooms and were driven to Hotel Circle every time they had a client. Escort agencies are mostly controlled by women. The streets are the playground for the pimps.
Kelly looks intense as she describes how she got into the business.
“This chick threw this skanky outfit at me. I didn’t want to wear it, but I kinda had to.” Kelly was forced to have a threesome with a young illegal girl from Mexico and a strange man. “I realized what was goin’ on. I was backing out. The lady showed me a gun. I didn’t have the $500 to cover my job, so it was her way or the highway.”
I tell Kelly that we should get some sleep. I don’t want to make her relive any more of those horrific moments.
The next day, Kelly and I go to a matinee at Edwards Cinemas in Mira Mesa. Kelly starts texting and continues for the entire movie.
“Kel, who are you texting?!”
“My boyfriend Parker.” She says it proudly. I’m thinking, boyfriend? Uh-oh. I saw that episode of Law and Order SVU. That’s what all the prostitutes call their pimps: boyfriends.
I am hungry after last night. “Want to grab some lunch? We should go to Panera, or Pat & Oscar’s.”
“Yeah, but, um, I need to go home, ’cause Parker’s picking me up.”
She’s ditching me for the pimp? Whatever. In my mind, Parker (not his real name) is a guy decked out in ghetto clothes and diamonds and drives a blacked-out Escalade.
I drop Kelly off at her mom’s and go back to my family. I am suspicious, but I say to myself, She wanted to come back to San Diego. Why would she go back to whoring?
My phone rings the next day.
“Jessie, it’s Karen. Is Sis with you?”
“Um, no, I dropped her off at your house yesterday.”
“Shit, Jess. She’s on the run.”
I am pulled back into this dark, disgusting lifestyle. Kelly breaks my naiveté. It is like a terrible car accident that I can’t stop watching. I am a codependent in this drama.
We are planning an intervention — just like the damn TV show — Karen and I and Kelly’s biological father, Greg (not his real name).
We find out that Kelly is posting on backpage.com, in a section of the website reserved for adult entertainment. We find Kelly in the “escorts” section.
My first time looking for her on the site is traumatizing. I shouldn’t be reading prostitute advertisements. It’s gross, dirty, and the nudity is obscene. The entire experience is nauseating. It is a last-resort option, a way to know that she is still alive.
Kelly sticks with K names in her advertisements. She embodies a different character every time, wearing wigs, coloring her hair, using fake contact lenses to change the color of her eyes. In one picture, she’ll be a dark, mysterious European brunette, Kiera. In another picture, she will be Kayla, the all-American girl with blond hair, blue eyes.
My meeting with Kelly’s parents is over. I drop Karen off at her apartment complex. We sit in the car and chat for a few minutes. Karen is desperate.
“Jessie, do you know any guys we can call [and ask them] to set up an appointment with her? We need a number she doesn’t recognize, and she won’t accept blocked calls.”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “It’s kind of awkward to ask a guy friend to call and pretend like they need a prostitute for the night.” This entire situation is too strange. I am not calling anyone I know.
I look behind us. “Is that Kelly?” I ask, in utter disbelief. It is. She’s the bimbo Barbie in the car behind us. She is with her pimp.
“Oh, shit, Jessie, that’s Sis, and that bastard. Oh, just wait until he hears what I have to say.” Karen opens the passenger door of my car and gets out and struts over to Kelly. My heart is pounding. I enter the license plate of the car into my phone. Then I call Kelly’s dad.
“Greg! Oh, my God, get over to Karen’s right now, literally right now. Kelly and her pimp are here. Hurry.” I feel comfort knowing a man is on his way.
Kelly gets out of the car. Her boobs are practically pouring out of her slutty red top. Her tight shorts are blinged out, and she’s holding a bag of leftover food from the Cheesecake Factory.
“Mom, what the fuck?” Kelly shrieks, predictably protecting her boyfriend/pimp. “Leave him alone!”
Karen is furious. “Listen here, son,” she says to the pimp. “I got a little something to share with you.” She gets in the guy’s car and closes the door.
And now here I am, standing on a sidewalk in suburbia, with my prostitute friend, her mom, and a pimp, feeling just a tad out of place.
I keep Kelly calm while her mom goes off on Parker. Then her dad pulls up in his silver Prius and blocks Parker’s car from pulling out.
“Dad, what the hell are you doing? Dad, stop!”
Greg opens the driver door to Parker’s shiny new Camry and puts a kitchen knife to the pimp’s throat. Greg is not a macho type of guy. For him to have a weapon is totally outrageous. I will never forget the crazed look in his eyes, but he doesn’t say anything. It’s like a Scorsese movie.
Parker isn’t anything like I imagined. He drives a Toyota. The back of his car is pinned in by mine, so he bounces over the curb to get away. Karen is still in the passenger seat. She jumps out.
“Better watch out!” she screams after him. “I’ve got detectives on your ass, and I’ll hunt you down if you ever contact my daughter again!”
I have no words after Parker leaves. Kelly is frantic. We all walk up to Karen’s apartment for an emergency intervention.
“Kelly, you need help,” Karen begins. “You’re going to die if you keep up with what you’re doing.” Kelly’s brothers and I are sitting on the couches in the family room, each going around explaining to her how much we love her and want to help her. Kelly immediately breaks down.
We give her an ultimatum: go into treatment or back to the streets.
Fast-forward two hours. Greg and I are at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital to check Kelly in. She’s giving up the sex, drugs, and money. Her trifecta of addictions will not be easily cured. It’s going to take even greater forces to get her back to any sort of normalcy.
The intake nurse walks into the waiting room. It is past business hours. We prepped Kelly to let the nurses know she is a harm to herself — it was the only way to get her admitted immediately.
“So, Kelly, would you like to do your interview privately, or do you mind your dad and friend being in the room?” The nurse is polite, but there is some late-night attitude.
I am hoping Kelly lets us stay. I am curious about what she is going to admit.
“Yeah, whatever.” Kelly seems reluctant to go into treatment.
The nurse proceeds. “What is your drug of choice, and what drugs have you used throughout your life?”
“Um, coke, speed, ex, weed, alcohol, I don’t know.” WTF. She doesn’t know what she puts into her body? She’s just so nonchalant about it. “Everything,” she says, “I guess.”
“Okay, now, what are you looking for in treatment? And why are you here?”
“Um. I wanna get sober, I guess. I think I might be bipolar. I don’t wanna be on the streets.” Kelly doesn’t seem to have a clear picture of why she’s doing this. She thinks she’s bipolar? That came out of left field. I am feeling worried. If you wanted treatment, wouldn’t you seem more confident about it?
The nurse is puzzled. “The streets? Were you living on the streets? Why do you think you’re bipolar, Kelly?”
“I was, um, escorting, and was stayin’ at hotels. And, uh, bipolar. I don’t know, I think I am, though.”
Kelly is ashamed to admit to this stranger that she is a prostitute. I can see the vulnerability in her eyes. I feel bad for her. It’s like confessing your darkest secret.
I say goodbye after she finishes the interview. “Kel, you’re going to do great in here! I’m so happy you chose treatment. The nurse said I can visit in a few days, once you’re settled in. Love you, girl.” I can tell she is nervous. Her dad and I head back to Rancho Peñasquitos, feeling tense about Kelly’s stay in the psychiatric hospital.
A few days later, my phone vibrates underneath my pillow. It’s 7:30 in the morning. Who the hell is calling me on my day off?
“Jessie! Hi, babydoll. It’s Karen. The doctor called me yesterday and told me we can visit Sis today!”
I am excited and hopeful. Maybe she will be the old Kelly again, the beach babe I knew.
“OMG! I’m so excited. I’ll drive.”
We walk into a prisonlike building. It’s not serene and beautiful, like the registration room was. Oh, well.
The front-desk gal is nice. “Kelly is on Level 3. Let me call a nurse to escort you up there.”
The psychiatric nurse from Level 3 is more realistic. “I’m going to caution you that Kelly is extremely manic right now. She hasn’t slept for two days. This is a normal part of withdrawal from the heavy drugs she was using.”
What is manic? I’ve never heard this term before. Kelly must be exhausted. Heavy drugs? I wonder if the doctor knows about everything she was taking.
The elevator opens. Everything is key-entry, high security. All the nurses are inside a huge Plexiglas room located in the center of the floor. I have a feeling that Level 3 means extra surveillance.
“Jess! Mom! Guess what, guys? I wrote a book!”
Kelly looks awful. Dirty and strung out. Her bleached-blond hair looks light brown because of how greasy it is. Her extensions are long gone, and she’s got a short ponytail. If I thought she was speedy on the car ride from Ontario, then this is light years ahead.
“Read ’em! Read ’em! You have to read it! I’m gonna be famous from this shit!” Kelly throws three composition books at Karen and me. Every centimeter of every page is filled with blabber. Crazy talk. Circles of words. Some aren’t even real. I open up one of the journals. The stories are about Winnie the Pooh and big bad men who show up in the middle of the night. The language is childish. It seems like she’s on crack, but that is impossible.
Kelly starts shaking her leg. “Oh, my God, do you feel that? It’s an earthquake! Jesus is coming! Jesus and Moses and the disciples, they are coming! I am the messenger!”
She has straight-up lost her damn mind. It is like Girl, Interrupted, but it isn’t a movie. It is right in front of my eyes.
My heart starts racing. I am nervous. I feel scared. Seeing Kelly in a manic state is terrifying. I walk out of her concrete room. I am having my first panic attack. Is it worth my health to see her like this? I am not sure. But I am in too far to get myself out. Her mom needs my support. I can’t just walk away. My guilty conscious would eat me up for years.
The psychiatric nurse has seen it all before. “I think you two should go. Kelly really needs to sleep. The doctor doesn’t think it’s healthy for you to see her in this condition.”
I am perversely fascinated by the entire experience at the hospital. Maybe I’m codependent on the craziness. Because, of course, I go back. I let a few days go by, so Kelly won’t be so erratic.
The same psychiatric nurse seems surprised to see me. She probably thought I would never revisit, after my last experience.
“Hey, Kelly! How are you feeling?”
She looks so much better. Her greasy hair is cleaner, but still pulled back. She’s sitting still, so I know she's not going to pull another wacko manic episode again. I am relieved.
We sit in the cafeteria, eating hospital pizza. The slice looks like plastic.
“So, Kelly, the doctor said you’re going to get out in a couple days. What are your plans?” I want to see if she is thinking long-term sobriety. I see glimpses of the old Kelly when I’m talking to her. It gives me hope that she’s in there, buried deep underneath all of the trauma.
“My counselor is going to help me get into this house,” she says. “It’s called Generate Hope. You know the Rock Church in Point Loma?”
I’m not particularly religious, but I think every San Diegan knows the Rock, “Yeah, is it involved with that church?” I ask. “That’d be great! Do you know more about it?” I am curious and hopeful.
“Yeah, that church!” Kelly says. “It’s a safe house. It protects girls like me from bad guys and pimps. We do counseling and school. It would be cool to have people to relate to.”
This place sounds like exactly what she needs.
Kelly stays sober for five months, taking classes, and getting to know other hookers who have recently given up the “fast life,” as they call it.
Red flag, the friendships with prostitutes. Prostitutes can never escape their old pimps.
I haven’t seen Kelly since she’s been sober. Generate Hope has been keeping her super-busy.
But then, one day, my phone rings at dusk. I always expect the call to be from Karen, if it comes at an odd time.
“Hey, Jessie, I can’t believe this shit. The house manager just called. Sis left the fuckin’ house in the middle of the damn night with some pimp in a ghetto blue car.”
Do I really want to do this all over again?
“Seriously, Karen? When is she ever going to learn?”
“Jessie, come over. Let’s try and find her advertising.”
The nausea hits me again as we search backpage.com.
Keke, the freaky brunette. There she is, advertising for the Inland Empire. Eww. But at least I know she still has a pulse.
Kelly is on prescription drugs for bipolar and anxiety. Even if she leaves the safe house in the middle of the night, the pills are locked up. This is to prevent the girls from abusing them. So, Kelly isn’t taking her medication, and she’s going to go crazy again. But I figure she’ll come knocking on her mom’s door someday soon. Escorts usually work and go back home in two- to three-week cycles. It’s a vicious tease for her family and me. We get so much hope when she returns to Rancho Peñasquitos.
Kelly, however, does not come knocking on our doors. Poof — she’s disappeared. This is what it feels like.
But the drama can’t silence itself for long. A few weeks later, my phone rings at about 9:00 p.m.
“It’s Greg, Kelly’s dad. Strange situation here,” he says. “Just want to fill you in. There’s this guy, Leo [not his real name]. He says he’s Kelly’s boyfriend, and they’ve been living together in Culver City. Supposedly, Kelly’s been running in traffic. She’s lost her mind. He’s driving her to Pomerado Hospital. Meet me there at 9:30. They’re already on their way.”
“Okay, see you there, Greg. Bye.”
This pimp, Leo, has the heart to drive her all the way to Pomerado? What condition, I wonder, will Kelly be in this time?
On my way to the hospital, I drive through Carmel Mountain Ranch. I pick up Karen at her apartment. She goes off on a tangent, and I think, What am I doing? Why do I care? I am too nice. I promise myself that tonight is the last time. If Kelly doesn’t get better, I am done.
We pull up to the emergency room. Wow. There she is. That old familiar look: dirty and strung out. She is hanging all over Leo.
I greet her awkwardly. “Hey, Kelly, how are you?” It’s been awhile since I’ve seen her. Nothing has changed, except that now she has a new pimp. I try to ignore the fact that he’s standing in front of me.
“Jess! Aw, I’ve been good. I just wanted to come home. Damn, I need a cigarette. And I’m starving. Mom, can we go get dinner?” Kelly is a bit scattered and manic, but not nearly anything compared to the Jesus-earthquake-Moses escapade at the hospital.
“Sis, listen to me,” Karen says. “We need to get you in the hospital to take some tests.”
Every time Kelly comes home, these medical exams are necessary to ensure she doesn’t have any STDs.
“No, Mom. I’m hungry, and there’s no way I’m stepping foot in that emergency room.”
We are all standing outside the hospital’s sliding-glass doors.
Kelly and Leo are being all touchy-grabby with each other. Greg pulls Karen and me aside.
“Okay,” he says, “what are we gonna do? She’s not going inside the hospital, clearly. I say we take her to Aurora.”
Aurora? I used to hear about this mysterious place in high school. All the druggies were sent there by their parents to get clean.
I chime in, “Greg, is it going to be like Sharp Mesa Vista? We saw how crazy she was in there. Do we want to do that?”
“It’s our only choice.”
Greg is right. Kelly has to detox from the drugs and go berserk again, before she gets sane.
We hop in our cars and head to Aurora. Leo, the pimp, is still with us — he drives Kelly to Aurora, following us.
It’s 11:00 at night. We pull up to a desolate parking lot. There it is, Aurora. Much nicer than I pictured.
When I get out of the car, Leo takes me aside. “Ay, lemme git at you for a sec. I got this video I gotta show you. This the whole reason why I brought her ass down here. Bitch gone crazy.” He pulls out his fancy smartphone and there’s Kelly, running in the middle of an intersection.
“Ain’t this shit crazy?” Leo says. “She woulda gone killed herself if I dropped her off on a corner. Yo, I didn’t even know she was brunette till today. She been wearin’ blond wigs the whole time I been wit her.”
“Yeah. Pretty crazy.” I don’t want to get too deep into a conversation with this guy. “Look,” I say, “we’ve got her from here. You can go back to Culver City. It’s getting late.”
“A’ight, whateva.” He takes off without Kelly noticing. She would’ve thrown a hissy fit if she’d realized he bounced.
The intake nurse shows up for the interview. Déjà vu.
Kelly is becoming progressively more manic by the minute. What the hell?
We are in the waiting room, sitting on beautiful couches.
“Oh, yeah, you like that, huh?” Kelly is referring to all the men she supposedly slept with the night before. “Oh, yeah, that what I told all them assholes last night.”
I sit as close to the entrance as I possibly can. I am truly scared. One second, Kelly is somewhat sane, the next, she is a completely different person, role-playing in the collection of personalities she has created through escorting.
The registration nurse says, “Unfortunately, we are unable to take Kelly tonight. There are no open beds. If you bring her back in the morning, we’ll have a bed available. As for now, take her home; have her get a good night’s rest.” The nurse seems sympathetic.
Kelly does go back. She stays at Aurora for a couple of weeks, but the trifecta is too strong to cure. She reunites with Parker, the pimp before Leo.
I think about her every day, but I’ve broken my addiction.