The short blonde wig atop Ana’s head fluttered against the cool spring breeze. She adjusted it and her tight black and red corset top as she stopped outside the corner store that was the front for PJ’s escort business. Her heart pounded in her chest and kept rhythm to her jittery stomach. The laces of her top dug into her chest and stomach and were so tight it made her want to vomit. She wouldn’t last long in it, but it would have to do, at least for tonight. It might be her only chance to justify spending her last few dollars on it. She should have been smarter with her money. The top wouldn’t fit in a few months anyway.
She stood staring at the shop door and inwardly sighed. How had she gotten here? Joey. That’s how, she reminded herself. She loved him, but he was a useless man. Never cleaning up after himself, never holding down a job. Always spending precious money. Ana felt the anger rising. She shook her head to clear her mind, and then pushed through the door and asked for PJ at the till.
“PJ ain’t here. You Ana?” Ana nodded. “He said to see Kandi.” The girl motioned to the door marked “Employees Only.”
The back room was dank and dark and smelled of a mixture of urine and sausage. The smell alone announced what types of people used the space. Ana cringed knowing that she would now add to its disgusting dishonesty. A table sat beneath a bare light bulb and was topped by an empty sandwich bag, a mirror covered in white powder, a credit card and some cigarettes. It didn’t take a genius to recognize the powder as drugs.
Another sick feeling plagued Ana’s stomach. Drugs were something she had expected to encounter, but not so soon or so obviously. She took a deep breath to steady herself. The overwhelming smell grated against her senses and her stomach leapt. She spotted the bathroom door, heard the loud, abrasive singing came from behind it and barged in anyway. She slung her head over the toilet just as what was left of her supper left her stomach. That was the third time today since lunch. She wanted to chalk it up to nerves, but she knew better.
“Hey! A little privacy here, please. What’s the matter with you?” a young girl yelled at Ana.
Ana wiped her face and flushed the toilet, and then stood up to maneuver around the girl to the sink.
“Sorry. I’m so sorry,” Ana whispered. “I just…The smell out there is awful.”
The girl laughed out loud and turned back to the mirror. “Yeah, it’s awful alright. PJ and his sausage.”
Her normal speaking voice was just as abrasive as her singing voice. Her black hair was shiny and almost sticky as though it hadn’t been washed in a few days. She’d added red streaks to it, but they’d faded to a dull, limp pink and resembled waxy Barbie hair. Her red-rimmed eyes, raw, red nose and red lipstick accented the pitiful pink in her hair.
“So, you’re the new girl?”
Ana nodded absently, distracted by her protesting stomach. She needed out, but there wasn’t a way out. She squeezed beside the girl and turned the tap on. The single toilet and sink made space tight, but she managed to get close enough to the yellow sink to slap some water on her face.
“I’m Kandi, with a K and an I,” the girl continued. “My real name is Jonetta, but that ain’t a street name, right? PJ, he said I gotta change it right away, that nobody’s gonna love somebody named Jonetta. He said I gotta make it something happy, something that excites people, so I figure Kandi will do that, right? Like, you know, candy gets people all hyper and stuff. Get it?”
She laughed loudly, a little too loudly. Her pupils shone bright beneath the red rims and Ana wondered idly how much drugs she’d inhaled already. Ana didn’t bother answering her question. Really, she didn’t have a chance against Kandi’s motor mouth.
“So what’s your name? And your street name? I hope you picked something real good, because that says a lot about people you know. PJ, he says that people who can’t pick good names are dumb as shit.”
Ana furrowed her brow. The chatter was incessant. She took a deep breath to calm the suddenly rising irritation and focused on her image in the mirror. Thick, garish make-up surrounded her brown eyes while red lipstick covered her lips. Her blond wig was miraculously still in place after her violent up-front experience with the toilet. She felt momentarily thankful knowing that it would stay in place in the middle of…that. She shuddered at the thought. Tonight was her first night as a female sex worker and she was going to commit intimate acts with a complete stranger. She shuddered again, this time in repulsion and her gut leapt in reaction. She cried out loud, spun on her heels and dry-heaved into the toilet.
“First day jitters, eh?” Kandi said from behind her. She held back Ana’s hair and oozed sympathy. “Don’t worry, girl. You’ll be fine. All you gotta do is become someone else. This? This is Kandi and she’s the prostitute. Jonetta? She ain’t nowhere around here. She doesn’t even talk like this. That’s what you gotta do, babe. Pick a lady and be her.”
Ana wiped her mouth with toilet paper and flushed the toilet. She moved back to the sink and slapped more water on her face. Her stomach ached with the after effects of heaving and with a deep, angry fear. Was it possible to invent a new personality? Would the line blur between who she was and who she pretended to be? Or could she just be herself? She wiped her face dry and then turned around to face Kandi.
“Thanks. I’m just feeling a little nervous. I’m not used to this, you know?”
That part was true. She wasn’t used to this and she was nervous, but that wasn’t the whole reason for being sick. The worst part was that she couldn’t tell anyone the truth.
“Yeah, I know. I’ve been there, right?” Kandi nodded her head emphatically like she really knew how Ana was feeling. “Listen, we gotta bounce. PJ’s gonna be here soon and we’ll be in real shit if we don’t show him some money. You can’t be wearing what you’re wearing, by the way. This is street business. There are cops around. You can’t be looking like an actual hooker. You got a sweater or something?” Ana nodded. “Then put it on. C’mon.”
She grabbed Ana’s hand and pulled her from the bathroom through the back room and outside. Ana followed along blindly, unsure of what her next move was. She laughed to herself. She had no moves at all let alone a next one, but she’d always been good at just following along, at picking up new skills. She hoped this would be the same.
“My name is Ana, by the way,” she said as she hurried to keep up. “My street name is Rosie. I thought I might play the sweet one, you know?”
Kandi nodded. “Sure. That’s a hard role to play, though. You better be good on your feet or PJ will make you change.”
Ana nodded and kept quiet. She wasn’t sure if she could be good on her feet or sweet, even, but she was determined to try. She slipped her sweater on in an effort to show some obedience. She didn’t want to get caught on her first day or get anyone in trouble, especially with PJ. He sounded like a real jerk.
They stepped out on to the street and made their way toward the corner two blocks down. There was a liquor store there. A perfect spot to catch people driving or stopping by, Kandi said. They stood on the corner and waited. Eventually, a car slowed. Kandi moved toward it, waved her hand and called out. The car stopped and Kandi moved forward.
“Hey, honey. You’re looking fine. You wanna give me a show?” the man asked. His greedy eyes and sly smile oozed creepiness from the other side of the car. Ana shuddered and felt a strong urge to vomit again. Oh, Lord. How was she going to do this?
“Nah, Georgie, but I’ll take a little sugar from you,” Kandi said as she leaned into his car.
Georgie leaned forward and grabbed Kandi’s face. He inspected her before slamming his lips against hers.
“Baby, is that all you ever want from me?” he said when he came up for air.
His voice oozed slime and sickly sweetness and his eyes shone brightly, excitedly, as if he got off just at the thought of what he might get. He pulled her towards him again until she was hanging half in the car and half out.
“Are you willing to give me something in return?” he continued. Kandi nodded eagerly, desperately almost, her eyes wild and anxious. “Get in then. And tell your friend to get in the back seat, too.”
Ana climbed in at Kandi’s gesture. She expected the car to drive away to somewhere more private, but she became utterly still from shock as Kandi’s hand moved down Georgie’s leg. Right there on the side of the street. Ana closed her eyes and tried to block out the sounds. She sang a familiar song to herself, to the life within her to clam herself. This was it. This was her new life, and she wasn’t ready.
Suddenly, Kandi spoke and drew Ana back. The clink of a belt buckle signalled their release and she waited for the moment to open her door.
“Okay, Georgie. Where’s my sugar?” Kandi asked anxiously.
“Sorry, babe. I don’t got any on me. All out until Monday,” Georgie responded. He had a sick smile on his face.
Kandi sunk down into her seat and then suddenly bolted forward and punched him in the arm. Georgie’s arm came up just as quickly. A harsh noise filled the car as he slapped Kandi hard across the face. Soft sobs sounded from the front seat and a rough chuckle followed. Georgie lifted his hand to slap her again, but Ana jumped forward and grabbed it.
“Don’t!” she cried. “We’ll just go. Don’t hit her.”
Georgie turned to Ana. His face was contorted into an angry grimace. “What? You want some of this, too? Do you?”
He snarled like a caged wolf, loosened his seatbelt and began to move into the back seat. Ana’s heart pounded in fear as she fumbled to open the door. This was her moment to move. Finally, she was on the street. She slammed the door just as Georgie landed in the back. She quickly opened the front door, dragged Kandi out and pulled her around the corner and into a back alley.
When they stopped and were hidden from view, Ana looked at Kandi. Her cheek was swollen and an angry red where she’d been hit. Her mascara ran down her cheeks where tears had trailed before. Her lipstick was smeared where lips had slid across her face and eyes were as a glassy sheet of ice. Her hands shook at her sides and she shivered forcefully beneath her sweater.
“Are you okay?” Ana asked softly. Pain and worry filled her heart. What had she gotten herself into?
Kandi looked at Ana and then swiped her hand across her face, smearing her make-up even more. She looked like Batman’s Joker with her bad mascara and cheek-to-cheek lipstick.
“Yeah, I’m fine. We just…we just gotta find Ace. He’s the guy for you. He likes to double up, so I can help teach you. I just…I just can’t think right now. My head’s all confused and…” Her voice trailed off as she began to pace.
Ana stood and watched Kandi’s edgy back and forth movements. She was wound up tight like she might unravel at any moment. To Ana, she looked like a little child about to have a temper tantrum; a child who was trying to be grown up, but couldn’t even put make-up on properly. Something had to be done. She absently rubbed her hand across her belly. They couldn’t just stand here and pace back and forth. They were sitting ducks—perfect targets for the police. She had to find Ace.
“Kandi, where can we find Ace? I think that’s maybe where we should go,” Ana suggested.
Kandi kept her rhythm steady—back and forth, back and forth.
Ana touched her shoulder. She wanted to comfort Kandi and she wanted her to stop moving. Her frantic pacing was making Ana feel sick. Kandi whirled around at Ana’s touch and suddenly swung at her. Surprised, Ana yelped and ducked beneath her fist.
“Don’t touch me!” Kandi shouted. “Don’t touch me!”
Her eyes were uninhabited, distant and glazed over with a sheen of neurosis, of desperation. Finally, Ana realized what was off about her: Kandi was coming down off a high. She kicked herself for not expecting it sooner.
Suddenly, Kandi raced down the street hollering for Ace. Ana followed her, certain she was heading to find him, but she struggled to keep up. Her feet and legs were aching from her inappropriate high heels and within minutes she could feel blisters forming. Despite her state, Kandi seemed to know exactly where she was going. Every once in a while she hollered for Ace, but nobody answered. Passersby just peered strangely at them both. It wasn’t hard to tell what was wrong with Kandi.
By the sixth block, buildings were run-down and abandoned and graffiti covered every square inch of the limp architecture. But in the middle of the trash, a decently-kept house with a trimmed yard of green grass arose like an oasis in the desert. Ana knew this was where Ace lived, but she wondered idly how he managed to make it look nice, even at such an early time of the season. The reservations she had about a man who would require services from someone like her changed into a hope for mankind, and beneath the hope was a worry that it was all false.
Kandi and Ana climbed the front steps of the house and Kandi knocked on the door. A fat, balding man with tattoos covering his arms and bare chest answered the door. A gold chain necklace of the word “dawg” hung from his neck. He leaned up against the door as if he was the sexiest man alive, but his bulging gut screamed sumo wrestler rather than George Clooney.
“Kandi, baby!” the man crowed. “Brought me another new girl, huh?”
“Yeah, Ace. I was wondering if you’d like to make a deal?” Kandi asked. She was near whispering, but her body was arranged in an attempt to be seductive. It was a strange combination with her anxious behaviour.
Ace surveyed both Kandi and Ana the way a mutt eyes up fresh meat: nearly drooling and eagerly panting. Satisfied, he waved them in. He led them through a small hallway and straight into the bedroom, which, though neat and tidy, smelled like sweaty gym boys.
“The two of you together for $50,” Ace said as he shut the door behind him.
“Fifty bucks and a hit,” Kandi countered. She wrung her hands anxiously and glanced behind her at the closed door as if a prison door had just slid shut behind her.
“Fine. But only after it’s done.”
Kandi shook her head vigorously. Her eyes were wild and she started to pace back and forth again. Ana wanted to grab Kandi’s hand to make her stop moving. The pacing was too much.
“No, man. I can’t do it without a hit. Come on, please,” Kandi pleaded. The begging was pathetic and instantly sent Ace flying at her in whirl of rage.
He grabbed Kandi’s arm and shook her hard. “Babe, get a hold of yourself. I said, not until it’s done. Now both of you, let’s go.”
A frantic cry sang from Kandi’s lips as she spun out of Ace’s control. Ace leapt forward and pulled her arm again, but she refused to let him maul her. She lashed back and hit him repeatedly while attempting to get away from him.
“No, no, no” she wailed. “I can’t. I won’t. Please, help me.”
“Shut-up!” Ace yelled. “Just shut-up and do as you’re told.”
He smacked her hard in the face and sent her head reeling back against the wall she was up against. When she wriggled out of his reach again, he pulled her hair and punched her square in the nose. Blood gushed to the floor. Then he slammed her up against the wall and pummelled his knee into her gut over and over.
Terrified, Ana began to scream. She couldn’t allow this to happen. She had to protect this, this child. She lurched forward and dropped punch after punch onto Ace’s back.
“Stop! Stop!” she cried. “Stop hitting her. I’ll do whatever you want.”
Ace dropped Kandi to the floor, turned around and reached for Ana’s arms and hair. Kandi flopped like a limp noodle. Ana desperately wanted to help Kandi, but Ace’s hands forced her to stay where she was. The fight was now in her hands—what she’d wanted, but not was she was prepared for.
“Oh, so you think you’ve got it figured out, eh new girl?” He twisted Ana’s arm behind her back and pulled her head back so that her throat was stretched up to the ceiling. He leaned in close and breathed heavily in her ear. Ana tried to hold back the tears.
“I’m going to make you pay for this mix-up. Get on the bed,” he ordered.
Determined to keep him away from Kandi, she did as she was told. She trembled as she watched this fat bald man climb over top of her. She could see Kandi laying limp on the floor across the room, knocked out, or maybe even dead. She knew what would happen to her if she didn’t cooperate.
She willed herself to focus on the task in front of her and not on the world around her. She had a job to do and she was willing to do it, if only for the child on the floor. She couldn’t stop Georgie and she couldn’t stop Ace earlier, but she could stop it now if she just stood up. She took a deep breath and then sat up boldly on the bed, forcing Ace to move backwards off the bed.
She’d dang well get some money for both her and Kandi, too.
“I want my money first. One hundred and fifty dollars.” She had no sense of how much she should charge, but he’d just beat up the only person she knew in this industry so he was going to pay for it.
Ace stood back and laughed loudly. “Aiming a little high, aren’t you? After this display, twenty-five dollars, tops.”
He scoffed. “Thirty.”
Ana paused and then moved off the bed and slid around him towards the door. “Okay, see you around then. I guess I’ll just call PJ and let him know what happened so he can come visit you.”
She sauntered away more confidently than she felt. She got out into the hall before he called after her.
“Wait! Wait! Fine. Hundred twenty-five.”
He pulled out his wallet, rifled through the cash and handed it to Ana. She tucked it into her jeans, walked into the room and pushed his chest towards the bed.
“You like it rough, don’t you? Well, you’ll get it rough, boy.”
Ana slapped him hard across the face. Just a little too hard. She leaned down and licked his cheek, struggling not to shudder in front of him. The sweaty smell of Ace and the room swung her nausea up into her throat, but she forced herself to continue in a mindless method. Focusing her mind on Kandi’s dull humour, on Joey’s crystal blue eyes, on the kicks she felt within. She let her body go numb as she thought about everything else except what she was doing. She felt the switch flip over and she smiled to herself. She had just lit the flame and nobody could stop it. Not even this bottom-feeding scumbag beneath her. Perhaps Rosie wasn’t the most suitable name for her. Perhaps they should just call her Ana.