“This is where you’ll stay.” Rodeo led me into a room with a king-size bed. Beside it was a nightstand, a window, a steel safe bolted to the floor. “It’s also where you’ll negotiate. I tell all the girls: ‘Know your worth, and demand twice as much.’”
My worth, I told her, depended on the day. People said I looked like a young Karen Carpenter with my doe eyes and naive smile, but my boyfriend Nico told me I looked like Karen Carpenter (period)—his way of calling me an anorexic whore. I weighed one hundred pounds at the time, and my chest was flat, which Rodeo said was a good thing because it made me more approachable. She also suggested I not play The Carpenters while having sex with clients.
I had just turned twenty-two when I decided to work at the brothel. The plan was to leave Nico when I earned enough money. Rodeo told me that most girls made ten thousand dollars per week, and I trusted her. She wore a black leather cowboy hat and t-shirts bedazzled with peace signs. She punctuated her thoughts with honey and darling as though I were part of her family.
My prior boss, Hal, a balding man with a red sports car, referred to his employees with epithets.
Mine was Hula Hoop; he said that’s how my frame looked spinning on the stripper pole. Nico––who barbacked on the weekends––Hal referred to as Tweaker. The title proved accurate when he caught Nico stealing from the register and then tossed his ass in the dumpster. So there we were, Hula Hoop and Tweaker, a one-income family living in a cramped studio by the airport, that is, until the night Nico passed out while cooking meth and set the place ablaze. It seemed as good a time as any for a change, so I packed up my car and drove into the desert.
“Have you thought of a name?” Rodeo asked, flipping through pages on a clipboard.
“Phoenix,” I said.
“We already have one of those.”
“How about Sloan? It makes you sound like a pretty girl at the mall.” I agreed, and she asked for copies of my STI screening.
The brothel, called Sex Odyssey 3000, was part of a truck stop in Amargosa, two hours north of the city, supposedly near Area 51. The lobby was loosely alien-themed in a way that comforted me––psychedelic posters, neon green string lights, flying saucer figurines placed on the sills and shelves––like the bedroom of an adolescent boy. My room, however, was comparatively plain: beige carpet, wood-paneled walls, and a bathroom that smelled like a YMCA pool.
“Decorate however you like,” Rodeo said. “Give the space a little personality.”
“I only brought clothes.”
“How about toiletries?”
“I have them.”
“I’m just fooling,” Rodeo chuckled. “Toothbrush? You’d be surprised how many girls forget that.”
“I’ll take an extra.”
Rodeo stepped out of the room and returned with a small shrink-wrapped toothbrush, the kind they gave out for free at the clinic. She placed it in my hand, and I stared at it, perhaps for too long.
“Seriously,” she said. “I was kidding about the switch knife”
Each morning, I woke at seven. I shaved, showered, put on a nightie, sprayed some perfume, straightened my bangs, and––when the bell rang––reported for lineup. The other girls were gorgeous yet kind. Technically, we competed for clients, but there was no cattiness or fighting. Men chose who they chose, and it wasn’t personal. Everyone is someone’s cup of tea, Rodeo always said. She cooked us communal dinners of yams, brown rice, and assorted leafy greens. Regularly, she held boudoir hours, checking on each of our psychological states. I spent a lot of time in her room, complaining about Nico, debriefing from clients, and learning the proper way to shave my labia. It felt nice to have someone to talk to, someone to have my interests at heart. Rodeo told all the girls that our happiness was her priority, that if we were happy, we’d do our jobs well, and even though I wasn’t happy, I didn’t want to let her down.
After two weeks, I had earned nearly twenty-five thousand dollars. I deposited the first and last month’s rent on a loft in Vegas and spent downtime lying on my brothel bed, chewing the handle of Rodeo’s toothbrush, and looking online for furniture. I wanted full-grain leather upholstery, Edison bulbs, and room dividers made of teak wood. It felt strange to choose specific items rather than settle for whatever showed up at the Salvation Army. Even stranger was the interruption of these shopping sessions by the ring of a bell and, after brief negotiations, a man banging me doggy style in a room plastered with moon landing conspiracy propaganda.
The brothel attracted a diverse crowd: sci-fi nerds, Duckwater tribesmen, drunk bachelors shipped in by Sprinter vans. Mostly, it was truckers, simple men with toned arms and the pent-up lust of teenagers. For them, I dressed special: daisy dukes, white pumps, and a gingham top that I knotted above my midriff. It felt natural to wear this outfit, as though in another life, I was the sultry girl next door rather than the offspring of addicts, Rachel, who dropped out of high school to strip. The older I got, the more I felt ashamed of dancing, gyrating my crotch on red-faced businessmen who breathed cigarette breath into my eyes. This shame multiplied whenever I’d look over at Nico behind the bar, flirting with another sallow-faced cocktail waitress. It wasn’t that he found me unattractive. I was simply one girl in a world of many, and Nico, like the patrons of Little Treasures, wished to sample them all.
At the brothel, when men booked me, I felt wanted. They gripped my hand and kissed it. They held open the door as I led them to my room, sat them on the bed, and stroked them by the arm.
How can I make our time special? I’d ask, their eyes igniting with passion.
Anal, they usually replied. Ride me. Rim job. Touch yourself while I jerk off.
It seemed that porn had stunted the imaginations of most men. Their conception of sex was tied up in keywords and surface-level descriptors. Sex with Nico––as much as I loathed him––fascinated me. First, he’d call me a whore (not in a romantic way). Then he’d rip off my clothes, bend my limbs in excruciating positions, and ejaculate while holding his fingers down my throat. I can’t say that it felt all that good, but for me, it was about the mystery, witnessing the carnal beast that lurked within a man and how I, like a full moon, made it emerge.
My favorite client, Jonah, had a thing for incest. He was thirty-five, reeked of stale beer, and had a Celtic cross tattooed on his sternum, beneath which was written 916, the area code for Sacramento. Twice per week, he paid me to put my hair in pigtails, feed him Viagra, and call him daddy-o while we messed around. It turned me on immensely how he liked me to insult him, how he raked his nails across my skin as though filing down a block of stone.
“You’re a bad daddy,” I once told him, spreading his legs and glowering at his crotch.
“So bad,” he said, huffing from a bottle of poppers.
“Your little girl is going to grow up to be a stripper.”
“And why is that?” I traced his perineum with my finger. “Tell me why.”
By this point with Jonah, I knew the answer; we’d discussed it at length. He was addicted to hookers, causing his wife to leave him, and his daughter to be permanently scarred. He enjoyed having this fear teased out of him while I sucked him off and fingered him.
“Mommy says you’re never coming home,” I said.
“It’s gonna be alright, baby girl,” he said. “Daddy-o is coming.”
With each spasm from his body, I sensed how much he wanted me. It felt powerful controlling a man in this way, gripping him like a bowling ball.
“Fuck,” he said. “I love you, Sloan.”
“Me?” I stammered. The room seemed to shift. I looked over my shoulder and saw my toothbrush perched on the bathroom vanity. My teeth had whittled its handle down to a point, and I felt a strong urge to plunge it into something.
Jonah grabbed my face and held it to his. “Tell me you love me, and I’ll tip you five hundred dollars.”
I pulled a scrunchie from my hair and shoved it in his mouth.
Although Rodeo’s official title was manager, the girls referred to her as our house mother. A former whore herself, she doled out advice liberally, and she had the most adorable wheezy laugh, like air passing through a cocktail straw. In one of our sessions, I got to talking about Jonah.
“And then he said he wouldn’t come unless I said it back. I’ve never told anyone I love them. What if he believes me?”
“Oh, baby,” Rodeo said. “I wouldn’t overthink it. Did I ever tell you about my sissy man?”
I shook my head.
“I must’ve been about your age, working outside of Sparks, and there was this gentleman of a specific interest. I would take him to my room, blindfold him, and give him a glass of water.
It was plain faucet water, but he’d pretend there was a roofie in there and go limp on the floor.
While he was out, I’d take off his clothes and dress him up like a little girl: baby doll dress, lace trim socks, tap shoes, diaper––the whole shebang. Then I’d tie him to a chair, pull off the blindfold, and smack him across the face. He’d wake up and see me and some other girls surrounding him, pointing and laughing, calling him a little sissy faggot. Then he’d shit his pants and cum. It was a hoot!”
“Okay,” I said.
“Men do all sorts of crazy things to get their rocks off. What we sell is freedom from judgment. If you’re ever uncomfortable, you can say no.”
“I’m not uncomfortable,” I said. “Just concerned. What if he hurts me?”
“He doesn’t know your name, your address, or what you had for dinner. How’s he going to hurt you?”
I nodded and thought for a moment.
“He’s not hitting you, though. Is he?” Rodeo laughed. “Because that costs extra.”
There was a rule at the brothel. For security, if you wished to partake in BDSM, then you had to book a second girl. Usually, men chose Kimiko, who, apart from me, was the youngest one there. She led my parties to the interrogation chamber, locked the door, and watched them chain me to the wall and flog me with lightsabers. The walls in this room were covered in mylar sheets that crinkled when my face slammed into them.
You like that, Sloan? You’re so fucking skinny, Sloan.
Initially, it had felt strange when men referred to me by this name, as though they were fucking not me but someone else, a prettier girl with a more stable sense of self. Gradually, I began to accept that this other girl was within me. She was who people wanted, and she came out once the cash was counted and dropped in the safe.
“Tell me your real name.” This, Jonah said to me from behind. My wrists and neck were trapped in a torture stock. In his hands, he held a riding crop.
“Sloan,” I said.
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
“That’s not fair,” he said. “You know so much about me.” Thwack.
I looked up at Kimiko, who stood in the corner, lazily staring at her feet. She moved her gum from one side of her mouth to the other. She reminded me of those girls in high school who smoked cigarettes by the sinks, the ones who saw me emerge from a stall––bloodshot eyes, bile under my fingernails––and aloofly offered a Listerine strip.
“Last chance,” Jonah said. He took a hit of poppers and lifted the riding crop.
“Rachel,” I blurted. “It’s Rachel.”
“See? That wasn’t so hard.”
He held some poppers beneath my nose, and I felt his fingers reach inside me. Then I felt the tip of him, followed by the whole.
“Who’s your daddy, Rachel? Who’s your… fucking… daddy?”
He grunted and thrust into my backside, bruising my neck on the stocks. I looked at Kimiko, hoping for a reaction. She looked at her nails, then at me, then back at her nails.
When not meeting with clients, Kimiko holed up in her room, webcamming with strangers and leafing through her hardcover copy of The Kama Sutra. In the off-season, she shot porn in Los Angeles. During the summers, she returned to Reno, where she lived with her parents, husband, and two German Shepherds. She said that she missed the dogs most of all.
“And what about your husband?” I asked her once.
“Sure,” she said. “I miss him in the way that you miss a home, but you can only ever miss something if you leave it for a time. That’s why I love seeing other men. By the time I return to Sora, I’ve forgotten what it is like to be with him, and it feels special all over again.”
“That’s beautiful,” I replied.
“Love is a beautiful thing, Sloan, and like most beautiful things, you have to come to know it on your own terms.”
Nico and I had also experimented with non-monogamy. To me, though, it had always seemed like a big game of chicken, each of us striving to show how little we cared about the other. First, I got hired as a dancer. Then he brought home odd girls for threesomes. I suggested we open our relationship sexually, and he suggested we open it emotionally, too. I left for the brothel, and he told me he hoped I got raped. Just kidding, he added. Still, there were things that I missed about him: waking up on our stained mattress, sipping instant coffee on our balcony, and watching the low-flying passenger planes.
“Of course, it’s not all about love,” Kimiko continued. “Sora is good to me in other ways.”
“He takes care of his parents. He cares for me when I’m sick, gives me massages, sings me songs. He makes me bibimbap.”
Kimiko brought her own food to house meals, green juices, noodles, and spicy brown sauces shipped in Tupperware containers. Rodeo took no offense. She congratulated Kimiko on finding a man who cooked for her.
“Someday, Sloan, you will find a person like that. I just know it.”
“Do you still talk to your boyfriend?”
“We’re taking time off.”
The conversation then shifted to Dayna, who had successfully undertaken her first triple penetration. The girls clapped and asked her how she was feeling, whether she’d used Crisco or traditional lube.
“I was so scared,” Dayna said. “But once I relaxed, things just opened up.”
I pushed my quinoa from one side of my plate to the other. The moist bolus of grain made my stomach churn. I excused myself to the bathroom, where I shoved the toothbrush down my throat and heaved over the toilet.
After dinner, Rodeo invited me to her room. She sat on her bed and placed her cowboy hat beside her. I sensed Kimiko had told her something.
“There’s a reason you have a fake name,” she said.
“He’s not going to hurt me.”
“He sure as shit won’t, at least while you’re here, but I can’t stop him from looking you up.”
I imagined Jonah driving up to my new apartment. I imagined him grabbing Nico by the throat and tossing him from the balcony. I imagined him ashing a cigarette on Nico’s scapula. I imagined him snorting a line of Viagra and forcing Nico to give him head. In all of these scenarios, I was lying naked on my bed, eating grapes.
“Have you got family back home?” Rodeo asked.
“Yeah,” I replied, biting my tongue.
I didn’t want to tell Rodeo about my parents. My mother weighed ninety pounds when the doctors induced her into labor three months before the due date. She was still alive, dealing blackjack up north. Occasionally, she called to ask for money. My father overdosed before I could remember. All I had was a photo of him holding me after my birth. I was about the size of a potato, and he had me nestled between his pectoral and shoulder. There, there, my little potato, I imagined him saying. I returned to this image often on nights when I could not sleep and sometimes during sex.
As I cried, Rodeo held me to her bosom and stroked my hair. She reached onto her nightstand and flicked on her kettle.
Anytime a girl had a sore throat or upset stomach, Rodeo made this tea that tasted like dirt and put the girls right to sleep. The next morning, after a laborious shit, we’d feel brand new. I’m sure that if I told her everything, she would have made me some disgusting drink that cured my whole life, voiding my bowels of the past. Instead, I held my face on her chest, feeling the warmth of her body, the scratch of the rhinestones on her shirt.
That night, I dreamt that Jonah showed up at the brothel and asked if I’d get in his truck. I did, and we drove off on the highway, eventually turning onto a dirt road. My dream self wondered: Was he going to kill me? Have sex with me? Have sex with me, then kill me?
We parked at the base of a giant sand dune. It looked at least a mile tall, and wisps of sand trailed off its peak. As I gazed upward at the sandy peak, Jonah reached behind my head, unzipped my skin, and pulled it down like a pair of pants, revealing I was a gray alien, the kind with a balloon-shaped head and black eyes the size of avocados. I unzipped his skin and found the same. We pulled out some toboggan sleds and ran to the top of the dune. Once there, we hopped on our sleds and sped downwards. We were aliens now, so we didn’t speak, just telepathically laughed to each other the whole way down.
“I woke up before we reached the bottom,” I explained to Kimiko later that morning. “Is that a bad omen?”
“You know dreams are a lot like sex,” she replied. “They can be wild, but they’re ultimately one-sided.” She proceeded to tell me about a regular client who had her wear an alien mask and shove metal rods in his urethra.
“I’m being serious.”
“You’ve got a crush on a client. Whatever.”
“No, I don’t.”
“It happens. My advice? Have fun with it.”
“So you’re saying I should keep seeing him?”
“If you’re enjoying it, in the emotional and financial sense, then yes.”
Sometimes it was difficult to look at Kimiko. Like a Picasso painting, her face drew your eye in a dozen directions: her sharp jaw, her bright cheeks, her full and vibrant lips. When I looked in the mirror, I noticed a different picture. I’d lost weight at the brothel. The skin beneath my eyes had gone dark, and my left breast had begun to sulk beneath my armpit. When not having sex with Jonah, I searched for him online. Jonah trucker, I Googled. Jonah, thirty-five, Sacramento. His last name was stored somewhere in the brothel records, but I had no access to them.
“Rodeo says I should stop seeing him.”
“She’s just protective, maybe overprotective. It’s her job. Usually, I see where she’s coming from, but I’m not above bending the rules."
“Then tell me your real name.”
“Sure, once we’re out of here.” She wrote some digits on a piece of paper and handed it to me. I imagined myself dialing the number from my Vegas loft and inviting her over. We’d wear pajamas, watch romantic comedies, and brush each other’s hair.
“Not to mother you,” Kimiko continued. “But Rodeo tells me you’re not eating?”
“Thanks, Kimiko. I’m fine.”
I wasn’t fine, though. I subsisted for days on seltzer water and handfuls of frozen french fries. I let them melt to mush in my mouth and pushed around the pile with my tongue. The bits that made their way down my gullet, I promptly coughed back up in the toilet. My vomit, which normally had the earthen complexion of food, turned a freakish yellow. Despite how often I brushed my teeth, I could only assume my breath reeked of bile. With clients, I tried to keep my distance, both physically and emotionally, but sex somehow unlocked the part of my brain where I stored my secrets.
“Do you smoke weed?” a man asked after a session out back in the hot tub. He was from Colorado and ran a dispensary. His name was Omkar, and he spoke with the bluntness of non-native English, unencumbered by the infinite ways one can say the same thing.
“It might help you deal with your food problem. Life, too.”
“It’s nothing serious.”
“But you are thinking about eating very much.”
“That’s the thing,” I said. “I want to stop thinking about it.”
“I see,” the man said. “I can give you some bud, if you want. It is also good for sex.”
It was noon at this point, and the sun hung high above the valley. A breeze rolled over the sagebrush, and heat ribbons rose from the earth. Omkar reached into his bag. He dragged from his vape pen, then handed it to me.
“I never really liked weed,” I coughed. “It makes me feel like I’m falling.”
“That is not falling. It is rising. Your consciousness is expanding, Sloan. It feels like falling because you hide from what is there.”
I massaged the lymph nodes of my throat. I closed my eyes and opened them.
“Tell me,” he said. “What is it you see?”
“I see the mountains and then more mountains.”
“Do they make you afraid?”
“They should. What if you fell from one? What if one fell onto you? What if you climbed to the top and exposed yourself to the sun? All things bring about death and life. As men, we cannot fight this, only recognize it. Fear is when you recognize with only five senses.”
“What’s the sixth?”
“For you?” He took a long drag and exhaled. “Your gut.”
He handed me his business card and an unopened vape pen. Then he kissed my forehead and told me to call him.
As I dried off, I placed my hand on my stomach and squinted at the distant rows of mountains. They seemed to churn, like water in a toilet bowl. Lightheaded, I reached down and dug my fingers into the sandy soil. I stared at the pile in my hand and watched it dissolve between my fingers.
“Have you ever been up to Big Dune?” This, Jonah asked me later that night as he wiped his crotch with a rag. He was not looking at me but rather out my window, at the expanse of desert and dust kicked up by the wind. I sat cross-legged on my bed, inhaling from the vape pen. Jonah was still hard. He sweated profusely from his forehead and reeked of liquor, even more so than usual. I told him I would go with him if he stopped lying to me.
“Do you think I’m not addicted to hookers?”
“Do you love me?”
“I love hookers.” He gestured to me: exhibit A.
“What about your wife and your daughter?”
They existed, he explained, handing me a wad of cash. She was thirteen and had been living with his wife since their trial separation. Apparently, her grades in school were slipping. “Basically, I fucked her up for life,” he explained. “My old man was a bad alcoholic, the kind that turns into a walking cloud of fists. You tell yourself that you’ll never become that, and next thing you know, you’re taking swings at your wife’s head. You got a father?”
“He’s dead,” I said, counting the bills and dropping them into my safe.
Jonah got dressed and told me to meet him outside. He walked into the hall, and I stepped into the bathroom. When I grabbed the toothbrush and held it down my throat, nothing came out. I knelt in front of the toilet, and pressed it down further, raking the brush along the edge of my throat. My stomach compressed, and I gagged, but nothing rose from within me. With the absence of vomit, I saw a faint reflection in the toilet water. I cupped my hands, placed them in the bowl, and tossed the water over my face.
Outside I stepped into Jonah’s pickup truck. He reached across the center console and kissed me. “I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this,” he said. “But you’ve got the most pretty little head.”
“I guess I’m just lucky.”
“No,” he said, cupping my chin. I’m the lucky one.”
We pulled out of the parking lot, passing an Asian couple. They stood in front of a photo cutout board of an alien flashing a peace sign. Behind it, their son placed his head through the hole and made a face.
“Have I ever told you I’ve been to Area 51?” Jonah said.
“It’s actually not all that interesting. You think you’re going to see an E.T. or a spaceship, but it’s just a bunch of high-tech avionics funded by the military. You believe in aliens?”
“Sure,” I told him. “It’s fun to believe in things.”
“Have you ever thought about why aliens would visit us? Have you ever laid it out logically?”
“No. It’s more of a fantasy.”
“In our millennia of human existence, we can barely send a person to the moon. If there were a species that could send ships across galaxies, that would mean they’re so much more advanced than us that we’d be powerless to their whims.”
“Like ants,” I said.
“More like dirt or water.”
I looked out the window and saw we’d reached Big Dune. It wasn’t as tall as I’d envisioned, more of a large hill than a mountain, and we were not alone. Along the sides of the dune, dirt bikes hummed and dipped, drifting through the depths of sand. Jonah parked the truck and reached into the back seat. He grabbed a Mexican blanket and a bottle of poppers. He placed a Viagra in my hand.
“Come on, baby girl.” He said. “Are we gonna fuck on top of this dune, or what?”
Like a dream, life contains little truth, and trying to parse it out makes you a ridiculous person. These days, I collect my checks, pay my rent, and ask questions of only a practical nature. I have no wisdom, and I no longer seek it out. When I meet a person who says kind words, I count myself lucky. When I meet someone handsome, I try to find something ugly about them: their shoes, the ingrown hairs along their jaw, their ridiculous tattoos, faded from black to grayish-blue.
As Jonah penetrated me on top of the dune, something seized in him. He laid above me in a planking position, his eyes frozen and dull like old marbles. I tapped his shoulder, and he fell onto his side, writhing in the sand like a snake caught in its own jaw. The wind hummed over the sand, and beneath it, I heard a dirt bike rev. It seemed only logical that the sky would open up, that a flying saucer would descend, beaming us into its cabin and lifting us up and away. But the only light belonged to the moon. It glowed yellow on his skin. His gums filled with drool, and his bowels unclenched. I stared at the stars, waiting for one to dart across the sky. If I looked hard enough, I could make out a tremor to each of them. I hit my vape pen and stared a bit longer.
When it got too cold to stay any longer, I stood and grabbed Jonah by the ankles. His truck was a long way down.
They sent police and paramedics to the brothel, but all they did was ask questions. It happens more than you’d think, an EMT told me. No charges were filed. In the days that followed, I made no attempts to contact his family or attend a funeral. We did have a staff-wide meeting in which Rodeo lectured on the dangers of mixing Viagra and poppers. I fell asleep to the sound of her explaining to Dayna the basic mechanics of blood pressure, the way that it dips, leaving the heart trapped in your chest like a fish in a puddle.
The next morning, I woke up with my phone in my hand. I’d apparently run a search for Jonah. On my screen were images of a man being swallowed by a whale. I looked up Big Dune and found it was just that, a pile of sand formed by currents of wind. Each year, it moved three inches to the west and shrank by half a foot. Within the millennium, ecologists predicted it would no longer exist, nor would its endemic species of scarab beetle.
I put down my phone and packed up my belongings. There would be no more hot tub, no more romps in the interrogation chamber, no sex for money or sex at all. As I loaded my car, Rodeo hugged me and asked for her toothbrush back.
“I’m just fooling, darling,” she added, handing me a bag of dried herbs.
A year later, while boiling water over the stove, I called Kimiko. By this time, I had cut off all ties with Nico, quit dancing, and found a gig waiting tables at a French restaurant, one that allowed me to appreciate food, at least in an aesthetic sense. When Kimiko didn’t pick up, I called Omkar and asked him if he could sell me some weed.
I said, “I’m eating again, and it’s fine, but the problem is that I want to die. I’m not going to kill myself or anything, but I’m like one step above that. That weed was actually pretty helpful. Sometimes when I’m high enough, I feel as though I can hear birds chirping, and not in an annoying way but in a magical way, as though they’re singing just to me, and only I can understand them.”
“Is this Sloan?” he asked.
So he flew out that weekend to see me. It was good to be with Omkar, to have sex with him, to smoke weed, put on my Carpenters records, and listen to him talk about chakras and energies, the unity of life forces and such. He paid me when we were through, as he did each time after that. We weren’t in love, but the clarity with which he saw life gave me pause. Each time he left, for a day, and sometimes two, I remembered that I was a body, and inside of me was insatiable hunger.