To be clear about things, this story actually starts long before I ever even thought of Sydney, of my science-fiction future harbour city full of fig trees, but that hardly matters because I don't believe in linear time; everything has already happened, we are just not always so good at remembering it. Serendipity is the grating of what we have forgotten against what we know, like the bones of a wrist gripped too tight, and my magic has always been that I can call it to me like cats.
You should know I once lived a long life in the BDSM social scene. I was submissive because that's what turned me on. I was submissive because it was a way to demand exactitude out of people without frightening them. That, I have to acknowledge now, was bad theory on my part, but I assure you, it does nothing to mitigate how ultimately disappointed it left me in the human species. But then, my perversions have always been about apprenticeship, about ordeal, about the desire that we should all be finer things. Most other people aren't like that.
In an act of profound cynicism, which I did not recognize at the time to be such, I became a professional dominatrix. I did not do this to acquire male attention, as was necessarily theorized by an ex or two, but rather to prove myself as legitimate in a scene that relentlessly trivialized or, more fairly, just missed, the nuance of why it was important to me. Besides, I told myself, the dot.com bubble had burst, I was unemployed, and it was most cerrtainly a job.
To be clear, dominatrixes don't actually fuck their clients. At least if they do, they don't admit to it, not if they work in a house in New York City. As such, the life of a dominatrix is one of every type of limbo imaginable. Other sex workers view you as a coward. Normal people view you as a whore, and you're neither, living your life amongst every type of freak and geek imaginable: from the guy with the head injury who calls you seven times a day to ask if you'll feed him dog food and drown him in the East River to the dude with the giantess fetish who will settle for Gummi bears when you refuse to crush live snails with your bare feet while he grinds his prick into the floor.
I lived that particular life from late 2000 until early 2002. In the weeks after 9/11 I sat in a a dark room that reeked of cherry-scented Glade plug-ins, the sun blotted out by velvet curtains, listening to BBC reports of the war that was coming before we knew its shape and size and it seemed like it would burn up the whole world. Sometimes, we'd have to pull on jeans over the platform boots we called frankenboots and run from the bomb threats that came in to the Empire State Building across the street. At night, fire fighters would come in. One had three children and a wife he hated, but he couldn't get it up for anyone but her, and he would sit on his knees and cry to me about that for $180/hour. Of that, I only got to take home $70.
One day I quit after smothering a guy with my ass for an hour. It wasn't the guy, although I tended to avoid clients with that much physical contact and probably only took the gig because I knew I was walking out right after. The fact was, I was a shitty dominatrix and the cash made the rigor I believed in impossible; I also didn't get that much work. The other girls thought I was ugly and were cruel about it, and the charming moments - like the time my smiling and nodding when I didn't hear a question led to the necessity of my concocting a long story about being a transsexual runaway to a guy who wanted me to dress him up like a woman - were few and far between.
And that was more or less that. I was no longer the hooker I had never quite been. Except for the fact that if you've done it once, everyone, including you, will always believe you'll be willing to do it twice.
A couple of years after the release of Moulin Rouge, which I did not see in the theatres due to being annoyed beyond words by what the film had presumably done to some of my favorite songs, my roommate, Megan, insisted I watch it.
"Just watch this, just this one scene."
And she showed me the tango scene. And the world just stopped for me. It was darkness and power and wrath. It was the very angle of my face when I imagined myself sly and solitary and eternal. Oh, how did I miss this?
Somewhere in there though, and a tremendous bit of this probably should involve me pointing at my friend Rahalia, I took a funny turn. Because I didn't become mesmerized by the movie, I became mesmerized by the director, that being Luhrmann. He gave these verbal, witty interviews, full of inuendo. And he always seemed to be both exuberant in them and full of a terrible self-imposed rigor (that he refused to ever eat in front of his cast during La Boheme rehearsals because he felt obligated to always be entirely focused on them is one particularly legendary tale). Here was someone else who did battle with demons both fantastical and ascetic; here was someone else that seemed as if they would weep in terror should they conquer the world because it would still, somehow, not ever be enough.
It's embarrassing to say this -- but in a certain way this whole story is really about the art of embarrassment -- when I was thirty-two Baz Luhrmann gave me the same strange little hope for myself that the vampire Lestat did when I was twelve, and, in the best fit of batshit crazy I've ever had, I decided to go to Sydney to study acting at the National Institute of Dramatic Art during their summer term. If you have not somehow deduced this fact, I should note that Luhrmann and his entire creative circle, of course, all studied there.
Some people are compelled to tell certain stories over and over again; I don't really know why. Peter Jackson, as an example, is obsessed with romantic friendship. For Baz Luhrmann matters of personal currency have more primacy. Myself, I am interested in the ordeal.
Early in his career, before, in fact, he got into NIDA, Luhrmann stared in something called Kids of the Cross, which was, as best as I can figure (having not seen it, and lord knows, I've tried), a documentary gone a bit wrong. Basically, Luhrmann decided to do this thing about the street kids -- mostly junkies and whores -- of King's Cross in Sydney, by living amongst them as one of their own. Eventually, he sold his footage and the project to a producer, and things apparently got quite sleazed up for a television production that ultimately included a scene in which the young Luhrmann is seen essentially picking up a trick. How real that was or was not remains entirely a subject for conjecture; what information exists about the project today is by turns vastly contradictory and unclear. And for me, that's always been part of the marvel of it, because, as I noted above, my life as almost a whore was a thing as equally between worlds.
In the end, stories like this have to come back to money, and, to be frank, getting to Australia was hard as fuck, especially since my insane part time job ran out of money as I was doing the last of my saving to go. I was thousands of dollars short without those paychecks and I needed cash any which way I could. I borrowed from friends, but since I knew what I was, what I had been and why I was going, I decided, for heaven knows what reason, to go on Craigslist to see if I could turn a proper trick.
There I found a fellow who just wanted a girl to come to his hotel room and masturbate. No contact. If you've never trawled Craigslist Casual Encounters for work, let me tell you, the odds of running into something as genteel as that are about the equivalent of being chosen to get shot into space tomorrow. But there it was, and I emailed the guy, and we chatted, and we made a date. I would meet him on Halloween night at the hotel that overlooked Ground Zero, and I only realized I hadn't set foot down there since the Towers had come down when I got out of the subway and called him from a payphone to announce my imminent arrival.
I went up to his room which overlooked The Pit. He shook my hand politely, laughed nervously, said he had never done this before, and assured me he wasn't married. Although they all say this, I actually tend to think he was telling the truth. I didn't tell him I had never done anything of the sort before, because he would have thought I was lying and suddenly that seemed very cruel.
We each sat on a corner of the bed as we negotiated the thing, him flipping channels on the television as he asked shyly if it was all right if he masturbated too.
He pointed to a chair at the far end of the narrow room. "I'd sit over there! I don't want to offend you."
I smiled with real kindness. "It's fine," I said softly.
And then I laughed. His finger had paused in his restless flipping of television channels, and there, full of fanfare, was the opening of the red curtain at the beginning of Baz Luhrmann's first film, Strictly Ballroom. I beamed.
"This," I said, "is one of my favorite movies." And then I couldn't stop laughing. "It's very funny to see that now, but I couldn't possibly explain why!"
We chatted some more, through the opening credits, and then he flicked it off and went to his armchair and I wanked on his stupid hotel bed, got dressed, took his money and left into Halloween and outrageousness and a play in which I had a small role in a midnight performance of that very evening.
"You will not believe what I just did!" I told Megan, meeting her outside the theatre. And while it was funny and outrageous it also felt oddly right and solid, like a prayer.
Two days later the guy emailed me:
"I watched your movie. It was the cheesiest, most ridiculous awful thing I've ever seen!"
I never replied.
When I got to Australia and people asked me why the hell I had come all the way from New York City to study acting, I just smiled, lopsided and with pursed lips and said, "It was a whim," like I was flirting in a bar. Everyone knew I was lying. And everyone loved me for it.
Everyone has a line and everyone has a price, and I was never a whore, not really, but I will cherish this story until the day I die or get to tell it to a certain famous movie director, and then it will disappear, like it never really happened along with the Gummi Bear Man and Dogboy and all the men who sloppily asked me to hold their secrets at $180/hour. They've got less peace than me, and, by and large, less honor for it too, because they never really grokked the part where being submissive is like holding the whole world as if it were a marble in your palm or in your mouth or resting, like water, in the hollow of your turned up throat.
Or maybe they did. And they were just disappointed too.