Trust Your Gut
One of these days I've got to update the paper journal. That thing is so far behind.
Anyway, this and Fear and Loathing '72 is what I've been busting hump on this week. I hope Soft Skull decides to publish it.
Trust Your Gut
Possessed, my phone spins on a cushion of air generated by the whirr of its motor. I lean over my bedside table, squint at the number blinking on its green face, and perk up when I realize it is someone new. Quickly, I scoop up the phone and press it to my ear.
“Is this Daphne?” a gruff voice asks.
“Possibly, who are you?”
“My name is Phil. I got your number off a website. I’ve heard you’re really good. Is there any chance we can get together today?”
“Maybe.” I fall back onto a pile of pillows and pick my fingernails. I’ve had a slow week, so seeing someone new could be interesting.
“Well, what do I have to do to see you?” he asks. “Do I have to get a room and call you back? Or do you have a place we can meet?”
“You don’t have to get a room, but we do need to meet. Coffee downtown and a short chat should help us get to know each other. It won’t take long, half an hour or so, and then we’ll take it from there.”
“Back to your place?” he drools.
“Yes, if we’re both comfortable with that arrangement.”
“Well”, he hesitates, “I don’t have a lot of time today. I was hoping to see you between appointments. Is there any chance we can skip the public meeting? I mean, I can tell you anything you need to know right now, or in person, if you still want to talk when I get there.”
“All right”, I say, midway through his tale of sexual frustration. “I think I’ve heard enough. When did you want to stop by?”
“I can be down there in half an hour. What is your street address?”
“Uhh...”, I stammer “I’m not sure if I’m okay with you coming directly to the house. Let me meet you somewhere downtown, and I’ll walk you home.” Stay in control, I remind myself.
“I guess that’s okay. I just don’t know the downtown that well. That’s why I wanted to look your address up; so, I wouldn’t get lost getting there.”
“Well, you said you’ve been to my city before. Is there a place you remember that we can meet at?”
“Well, really, the only place I’ve been to a couple of times down there was the Embassy. Maybe you could meet me on the corner over there?”
The Embassy. I should’ve known.
The Embassy is one of the oldest and nastiest flophouses in town. When I was working for the local shelter organization, I met many people who said they’d spent nights in the Embassy because it was affordable. I’d also met a few streetwalkers who took their clients to the Embassy because the rooms were cheap and the management feigned ignorance of any illegal activities. As long as everybody was peaceful, the management didn’t care if you were dealing drugs or pussy. If you caused trouble or brought the cops in, however, nobody would stand by you.
Ugh. I don’t want to wait on that corner, outside, exposed to anyone driving past, trying desperately to look casual while suppressing the paranoia within. But, I rationalize, if he was coming in half an hour, I wouldn’t be standing out there very long. Besides, it is only a three-block walk. I wouldn’t have to leave until five minutes before our rendezvous, so the likelihood of anyone noticing my loitering would be minimal.
I chew my lip some more, listening to him repeat his request, before agreeing.
“Okay, I’ll meet you on the corner next to the Embassy in half an hour.”
“Great! And, would you...would you mind wearing something special, just for me? A skimpy dress and some black heels would be awesome.”
“I’ll see what I can do. See you then.” I reply, trying to sound cheerful before hanging up.
After spending the next twenty minutes finishing up a short feminist article, I slide off the bed and shed my sweatpants. Raking through my closet, I yank out a pair of slimming black slacks. I decide to keep my cute tee shirt and my usual purse. Going against my client’s wishes, I throw on my old sneakers, opting for a comfortable feeling of safety under my feet. I pull my hair into a tighter ponytail, determined to look like a casual coed, and not like some suspicious streetwalker.
I lock the door and trot through the narrow alley that separates my apartment from a local Mexican restaurant. The tower of the largest city police station looms over me as I exit the alley onto the sidewalk. Only two doors down, the station is both a source of comfort and fear. I know if someone attacks me, I’ll be able to run outside and attract attention; but my stomach collapses every time I pass the station to a meeting with someone new.
Softly patting my tummy, I trip past the tower’s eyes. They are blind to my approach, concealing its inhabitants. Flicking glances like arrows across the front of the building, I scan for exiting cops. None appear during my saunter to the corner. Casting my view higher, I catch a glint off one tower window. Squinting, I see a slit open in one of the blinds. My heart surges against my ribcage, as it stays open for one, two, three seconds. Then it closes with a wink. My nerves vibrate the tips of my fingers, but nobody cares. I’m invisible in my disguise of a college coed heading to the coffee house.
The light changes, allowing me to shuffle across the crosswalk. I count cars, much like counting cards, a vain attempt at traffic analysis in the city’s center. My feet trudge up one block, then two, closing the distance to my destination. A cop car whirls up behind me, nearly blowing me over. My legs tremble and the pit of my stomach falls to oblivion. Panting, I stop, clutch my purse, and take deep breaths until my legs consent to keep moving.
Quicker than expected, the Embassy rises before me. I refuse to wait in front of that monstrous motel, so I cross to the opposite corner. Unfortunately, there’s nothing remotely interesting on this side of the street. A black barbershop hugs one corner of the block and an old warehouse monopolizes the other. The parking lot in front of them is deserted and covered with pieces of white brick that appear torn off the warehouse’s façade. I kick some pieces impatiently, watching them fly into the road. Tiring of that exercise after a few minutes, I try to peer into the warehouse, but the cracks in the plywood reveal nothing but shadows. Frustrated, I examine the pictures of hairstyles taped onto the barbershop’s glass door. Just for fun, I try to imagine how I would ask the barber to style my hair, but it is a poor distraction. I already know my Anglo hair won’t support cuts like those.
Ten minutes pass before a black compact car pulls into the lot scattering several pieces of brick. I try not to appear too eager, but I slowly walk over to see if the driver is looking for someone. His soft fatty head sticks out of his window as I cross to his side, and he cranes his neck to watch me as I approach.
“Cool. I’m Phil. Hop in, and I’ll give you a ride back to your place.”
I clench my teeth, attempting a smile. “That’s okay. I only live a few blocks from here. That’s what I meant by walking you home. Besides, we’ll get a few minutes to chat.”
“Okay. I just thought I could park this at your place so I wouldn’t have to hike back to get it.”
“Oh, well, I should’ve told you. I don’t have parking there. Nobody does. The office in the front of my building controls the tiny lot in the back, and they love to ticket and tow out here.” Not a complete lie, I tell myself.
“Huh. So where can I stick the car?”
“I don’t know. I think there’s a structure up a few blocks. If not, I’m sure you can find some metered parking. I doubt you’ll need more than an hour and a half.”
“All right, I guess I’ll check that out. Are you sure you don’t want to ride with me? I mean, I have to find somewhere to park, come back here to meet you, and then you have to walk me to your place. That’s going to take a lot of time. It might just be easier if you rode with me and then walked me home from where I end up parking.”
“No thanks”, I assert, trying to sound offhand about the whole thing, “I’d rather just wait for you here”. Women’s bodies found on the sides of roads, in hotel rooms, and abandoned in parking lots fill my mind. Headlines from the Green River murders, images from Silence of the Lambs, and disembodied cries float through my consciousness. All serve to remind me of the golden rule: never ride anywhere with a john.
“Okay. I guess I’ll just find the closest parking I can and walk back up here. You’ll wait for me, right?”
“Yeah. I’ll wait. Just don’t park too far away.”
Smiling and waving, I watch him pull away. The nondescript black compact car cruises down one block before turning right towards the police station and disappearing down the road behind it. Alone again, I turn around, clutching my purse, trying to find something to watch on the other side of the street. The Embassy seems dead, but it is early afternoon. Through the vertical blinds, I can see the shadowy outline of its proprietor sitting at the desk behind the barred window. I only hope he cannot see me. As usual, people cross the streets near me, only taking a second to look at me and pass by, but nobody walks down this block. All by myself, time crawls and tension rises. My insides agitate like an old washing machine, forcing me to keep telling myself that
Fading phantom sirens start to call across the city making my ears prick. My hands start to tremble as descriptions of prison flow into my ears. I scrape my sneakers along the sidewalk and they become dusty from the white paint of the brick. Stealthily, I creep to the corner and peer down the street. I try to imagine where he would have to go to park at this hour, but I’m so shaken my mind refuses to give me any options. All I can think about is the cold feeling of handcuffs slipped over my wrists. My legs stumble to the other end of the block, to the barbershop, and I look directly at the menacing vulture guarding the city. Both eyes are shut; but, wait, another slit opens in the left. Sunlight flashes off the glass. Maybe they are watching.
Like an unruly beast, my stomach struggles against its prison. Unable to contain it, I shake uncontrollably. Ghosts dance on my spine. Immobile, my mouth turns to sandpaper. The only thought pounding through my skull is that I can no longer pretend that standing on this street corner on a Sunday afternoon is a normal thing to do.
So, I flee.
I sprint my faithful sneakers up one block, across an alley, and up another two blocks. The omniscient vulture’s eye watches me as I hurry behind the tower. Some people give me odd looks, but not many, as I hustle across the parking lot behind my apartment. While passing the rear of the restaurant, the smell of refried beans assaults my nose. One of the cooks, smoking at the back door, eyes me strangely because I’m panting. Silently, I pray that he’s the only one who noticed.
I jerk the door open, jog the short flight of stairs, and unlock the apartment. Exhausted, I shut the door and collapse behind it. Running my fingers through my hair, I regain my composure and start to think. My foot taps with each mistake I’ve made today. He was probably just a normal john, nothing special, and I lost my mind over it. Why must I be so unduly paranoid?
A violent bang resounds through the building. All my bad dreams that ended with my hiding in my bedroom come back to me. I jump to my feet, facing the door, realizing that I haven’t locked it. Frantically, I work the deadbolt into place as I hear a heavy set of feet thudding up the stairs. It catches just as they reach the landing. They continue, passing above me, as I press my ear to the door. A few seconds later the footfalls stop, a door shuts with a whisper and the low thrum of bass fills the subdivided house. Reeling, I slide down the length of my door onto the Formica, a puddle of nerves for anyone to mop up, thankful that I can still feel something at all.