Joyland

Montreal |

Beata Beatrix

by Virginia Konchan

The first time she turned a trick she was 15. She was living with a friend, Ashley, whose mother’s boyfriend molested her. She made the mistake of telling Ashley, who made the mistake of telling her mother, who called her a little bitch and kicked her out. Homeless for a week, she then began what was to be a decade of professional vagrancy, living on the so-called kindness of strangers, exchanging sex (the hottest commodity since antiquity) for a spot on the floor.

She remembers: driving illegally in a friend’s borrowed car, on her way to meet her first client, Jack, she’d met online. The transactional deal, not yet sealed, was flirtatious and coy, yet straightforward as only paid sex could be: they had a designated meeting place (the mall) designated meeting time (7pm), and designated fee structure ($100/hour). To any casual observer, their meeting had all the bubble-pop innocence of a blind date, for a Dairy Queen cone (age discrepancy aside: if enrolled in high school, she would be a sophomore, and “Jack” was a silver fox pushing 60, hard).

If you think the only glitch about working the black market is a lack of protection by the police, government or so-called family or friends, you’re wrong. We’re all hanging on the wire, and whether that wire is our savings account, stocks and bonds, IRA, next paycheck, or a Vegas day gone golden, the thread can, and does, snap without warning.

“Holes are interesting. There are books about holes,” said Don DeLillo, in Cosmopolis. Never a truer word was said.

Thinking about holes is like thinking about the inner life of sex workers. Like meditating on zero gravity or the great void, it’s enlightening to think about the life, times, and salvific wisdom of Jezebel, Zola’s Nana, Proust’s Odette, Moll Flanders, or Violetta, famed courtesan from Verdi’s La Traviata.

Her first French client, Yves, was good-humored, intelligent, and handsome. In his eyes, she was, he jokingly said, une belle salope.

“Are you ashamed of what you do for a living,” he asked once, flicking back a lock of her uncombed hair.

“There are worse ways to earn grocery money. And I’m looking for another job.”

“In the meantime, you can perfect your humanity. Sonya Marmeladova from Crime and Punishment, the confessor for Raskolnikov, whom she supports even though she was friends with one of the victims, Lizaveta, was a hooker of great virtue. She was trying to save her father, who was buried alive in debt.”

“Holy is good work, if you can get it. When I was little, I thought it meant that your literal body had holes in it, bullet wounds or emotional vulnerabilities where the light of God could penetrate, beyond ego. Jesus Christ made of Swiss Cheese—and Mary, bubble wrap.”

He smiled, tracing his hand down her bare arm until the gooseflesh rose. She was boring him. Prostitutes aren’t supposed to tell anecdotes, especially not personal ones. Puncture of the spectacle=fading of fantasy=buzz kill.

“Birds do it, bees do it/ Even educated fleas do it/Let's do it/ Let's fall in love,” sings Billie Holliday, in 1954. That’s all she wanted, but the prayer had broken off like a stale dream between fall and in: she’d “fallen,” instead, onto the streets: skid row.

Her desires were scaled back from education, professional achievements, family, health, love, and friends, to survival, and morsels of stolen pleasure.

For example, she had been eyeing a loaf of banana bread outside the window of the local food-coop for two weeks. A concrete, attainable, objective. Point A: desire. Point B: fulfillment. Story: the obstacles faced by the protagonist, en route between A & B! Easy? Easy.

A week later, three weeks to the date of seeing the bread, she tiptoed in. The slices were substantial, but not generous. She read the price tag: $6.25. Per slice. She did the math—ten slices to a loaf, if sold, would net the baker, or her store, $62.50. Time spent buying ingredients, and making the bread: two hours. Labor, singular or collective: unquantifiable as value. The reason the bread was so expensive was the main reason she didn’t make it herself: she didn’t have the capital by way of cash or equipment (the loaf pans, and the ingredients). Over time, could she afford that start-up cost, and were she to continue to want to eat banana bread, or anything else, the savings would be considerable. But for now? Much more economical to buy the slice, in theory, at least: she didn’t have six dollars.

This failed obtainment of a slice of banana bread along with the slings and arrows of her current profession constituted the plot points of her life before meeting Tom, a tattoo artist.

Within a month of servicing him, he whisked her off the streets and into his grimy apartment. Within a week of moving in, the place was spotless.

A week later, she celebrated her upward mobility by buying a pack of Marlboro Lights. She smoked half of one, then stubbed it out, coughing, after three puffs. Ugh, ugh, ugh, she thought, popping a mint.

Still—how was she going to keep her weight down without smoking, or skipping meals?

Most mornings, she served him eggs over easy, toast and bacon. “Can you learn to make a soufflé?” he asked. Let’s pimp out this breakfast ride, already!

“My mom wouldn’t let me leave the kitchen until the top looked like cloud cover on the days the heavenly skies parted, making way for the resurrection of the Lord.”

“Great,” he said, grinning, while sopping up his bread with the bacon grease.

What the hell is a soufflé? she thought. One hour of Googling and shopping later, she had the dimmest of ideas: it was a French delicacy that you either pay a lot of money for, in a restaurant, or request to have made, by your kept woman.

Lying down in savasana the following day after yoga, she realized this was the pose she’d chosen to conclude her life practice. I can die here, as a person or subject, she realized. Actually, I think I already died. I’m not even breathing. She turned her head to the left side, and rested, a monumental effort. Gravity has the last word, she thought, inhaling the resin from the wooden floor, a surface with which she was well acquainted.

Ground zero: her home turf.

A tear slid down her cheek. Pathetic.

Walking past a cat on the way home, she reached out her hand, timidly. The cat arched its back and scampered down the alley. That makes perfect sense, she thought. I am no added value to that cat’s life, unless I feed it, and it’s not paid to be friendly to me. It can even scratch itself, against a post!

She was not a gold-digger; and her situation was far from a gold rush. So what gives? She decided to start reading again, beginning with Gabriel Marcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Week two was the stage of training where she was instructed in the exact proportions of salt and pepper desired on his potatoes, and berated for the expense of luxury goods such as diet soda. Her life had shifted from the narrative labyrinth of a detective novel, to a lyric poem about the abjection of circus animals, to a syndicated newspaper column, owned by the Associated Press.

This Just In: You missed a spot of grease, while hand-washing my dinner plate.

Today’s Headline: I like my toast buttered, but the butter must be fully melted. No little lumps! No congealing pads!

News Flash: You’re not paid to have opinions, or preferences; you are “paid,” in room and board, to cater to the despotic and mercurial whims of mine.

Translation: Do What You Need To Do, to Get It Right, Every Time.

Learning Curve Leniency? Sure, if a bitch slap rather than a full on assault constitute as a grace period.

When a woman says I love you to a man, she means I love you: when a man says I love you, he means I own you. Simone de Beauvoir. Women are the consumed, men are the consumer. How much does it cost for a good winter coat? Her continental philosophy, at least for that month.

An hour later she drifted down the street, stopping in at random the fish market. Something for five dollars, she thought. The bell jangled rudely; she felt the predatory stare of the cashier, and the tick tick tick impatience of the butcher, as she stared at the array of fish in the display case, some still sporting heads.

All the sea creatures were dead, except the lobsters, writhing in a tiny aquarium to the right of the glass case.

Dinner, dinner, dinner. Think like a human for once, she thought, not like a bird, a swami, or a whore! Pray. No, don’t pray. Prayer is the chainmail of false consciousness, the succor of sots, and only makes things worse.

She fell to her knees, in front of the saline-smelling fish case, and began to cry.

Dear God. Please do not let the story of my life devolve into zombie food porn.

The butcher awakened her from her reverie. “Ma’am? Lady? Gal?”

No name, she thought, no name. Damnit, why is this so complicated!

Get it together, she said to herself. Buy the fish, gut it, baste it with thyme, cayenne, and lemon, pan fry it, put it on a plate with broccoli, or asparagus (she had choices!) and rice, eat a third, and give two thirds to him.

But she didn’t want to: she had no desire to entire into the exhausting cycle of consuming and eliminating, buying and selling, using and disposing: the closed circle of matter in the world.

She selected a single fillet of rainbow trout, eyes opalescent, empty. It cost $4.74. The butcher wrapped it in butcher paper, and she, in a suicidal delirium, walked slowly home.

Halfway there, she sat down on the stoop of an empty storefront, the city whizzing by, imagining she was granting herself a final supper, not of food, but of sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound.

Image: Sylvia Plath’s grave in St. Thomas’ Churchyard, West Yorkshire, England, strewn with pens.

Scent: A French patisserie at 8am: freshly baked humble pie.

Taste: The metal, rusted with blood, of her riding bit.

Touch: Tom’s tattoo needle boring into her skin, embroidering for eternity a heart in flames, wrapped in barbed wire.

Sound: Cats purring. Children at play. Nat King Cole.

Reality: that night was her last night on Rue Laval. Whether it was him who kicked her out, or she who had her last straw, by 11pm, she’d left with a suitcase, $100, and no regrets.

She had plans to go to a hostel. In the meantime, she slumped in an alley, closed her eyes, and tried to think of a title for her comeback. From Bedroom to Boardroom: Form, Now. Boardroom: ha. She had passed two interviews, and had just begun her new job, as a hotel maid, the previous Monday. $9/hour, 35 hours a week.

She couldn’t imagine a narrative arc for her new life, though. Or even a first line. Little Matchstick Girl it was. God. What a disappointing climax. She drifted off into the Escher-like unconscious: a spirit-laden underworld to explore, or mindscape from which to say goodbye, hazily, to her one-room coffin where she was protected from dumpster diving, couch surfing, women’s shelters, and monthly HIV-testing: where she was, for a short while, bien installer.

“Miss? Miss?” She tried to open her eyes, without success. A minute later, she did, and, adjusting her weight to a sitting position, a tall man with a goatee materialized before her, smoking a Pall Mall, a line of 20somethings in punk clothes in queue behind him.

“Who are they?” she asked.

“You’re next to Blue Dog,” he said.

“Ah.”

“Want to go in?” She paused, weighing her options. Die on the street, return to hell, or try a little nightlife.

“Sure.” She wobbled to her feet.

The cover charge was $10. They didn’t take credit cards, and even though she’d gave the bouncer her best Betty Boop pout and a solid trade offer ($7, a lighter, and a Canadian Tire coupon), no go. She started to cry: strangled little dry heaves.

“What’s your name,” said the Pall Mall man.

“Felicity,” she said. She threw the cigarette she’d bummed off him into the nearby sewer and watched it smolder. He took one look at her raccoon eyes, downturned mouth, and rat-nest hair and started to laugh.

“Felicity? As in, Lady Fortuna, mistress of mirth and auspicious tidings?”

“Fuck off,” she said to herself, not bothering to waste the words on him, nor explain to him the finer nuances, not necessarily Christian, involved in naming a child Felicity, Joy, Prudence, Faith, or Hope.

“Can I pay your way, Felicity?” She paused again, at War Strategy Crossroads No. 2, thinking.

No doubt he’d pay her cover. But that meant he’d hang on her elbow for the next two hours, shouting over the already-crappy music, spitting out his cinnamon gum after two vodka tonics and leaning in to maul her face.

A goth couple walked out of the club just then. They were both wearing head-to-toe black leather, and traveling at what appeared to be the speed of light.

“How was it?” she asked.

“The band sucks, and I have to work at 8am tomorrow,” said the guy.

She turned toward Pall Mall man. “Are sucky bands how you lure all the ladies?”

“Not cool,” he said.

“What’s not cool is you,” she said. She could see him trying to figure out whether she was worth the fuss, and deciding no. To both of their surprise, however, he gave the door of her one last firm kick.

“What do you do?” he asked.

“I’m a domestic engineer. At the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, on René-Lévesque.”

“What is that, a human resource manager? Do you do payroll?”

She examined her nails, not that there was any point—they were chipped and unpainted, with a nasty hangnail on exhibit A of specimen left thumb. That’s how she thought about her body: an entity needing identification and tagging, at a morgue.

“I change linen sheets for wealthy people,” she said.

“For real?”

“Yes sir,” she said.

“Name’s Henry.”

“Yeah right,” she said. She started walking down the street, her once sexy, faux-leopard print coat dragging slightly behind her. She bought it at a vintage store, Next Time Around. Story of her life. There had been other men, and jobs: there would be others still. Her life had no meaning, and as she hadn’t yet broken her NYE resolution (no lies, white or non-white), she couldn’t even make it funnier with tall tales and impersonations, unless employed by a theater.

Henry chased after her, pressing a scrap of paper into her hand. “My name really is Henry. Call me.”

She rolled her eyes. Men are so obvious! Maybe I will call him, she thought. Next year.

The next morning, while furiously scrubbing toilet No. 13, there was a knock on the door.

She stared down dully at the porcelain god in front of her. I’m on my knees for like five hours a day, she realized. Why in God’s name am I not servicing men, for triple the money?

“Felicity? Are you in there?”

It was Sandra, her Anglophone boss. Sandra hated Felicity.

Felicity stood up too fast, and then, running to turn off the radio, tripped, falling on her face. She didn’t want Sandra to panic. Plus the door was supposed to be open; the only reason she shut it was to play music. She righted herself and flung open the door. “Hi,” she said, feeling ashamed and dirty, even though she reeked of bleach and hadn’t done anything wrong except sing along, loudly and off-key, to Kate Perry “Fireworks,” on company time.

“Are you almost done? Marie-Pierre needs help with a group of Chinese tourists in Guest Services.”

“I’ll be there in five minutes,” she said, doing a little jig when she shut the door again. No reprimand for a shut door AND an hour with Marie-Pierre, who always had jelly beans in her purse, was nice to her because she knew her older sister Claudette from high school, was on the fast-track to assistant desk manager, and might remember the little people when she got to the top? Yes, please!

She called Henry the next night, around 7. She had just finished painting her nails silver and was feeling sassy.

He picked up on the third ring. “It’s Felicity,” she said. “What are you doing this weekend?”

“Going to a Monster Truck Rally in Detroit with some buddies. You?”

“Getting stoned and watching the entire Patricia Arquette discography.”

“Discography? Don’t you mean filmography? Or does she sing, too?”

“Sorry I’m not a media whore,” she said. “Sorry I’m just a country bumpkin maid. Sorry—”

“Hey hey what’s your problem?” She could hear him cracking open a can of something.

“Is that Canada Dry you’re opening?”

“No. Why?”

“Because I really want one, but it’s raining too hard to leave my apartment.”

All true.

“Do you live alone?”

“No, I have a roommate. Marie-Claude. I found her on Craigslist. She’s a recovering drug addict so I only smoke pot when she’s at work. She works second shift at an assisted living facility.”

“Do you want to go out when I get home from Detroit?”

“Okay,” she said, agreeing because she already felt like shit about her ethical commitments, and therefore herself, and therefore the world. What did she care if she wasted a whole evening with some truck rally honky tonk nobody, letting him stick his tongue in her ear at the end of the night like it was a New Brunswick oyster? She had plenty of evenings ahead of her. Surely she could spare one, or even four: an act of noblesse oblige for, you know, the rabble.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Guess.”

“I dunno. 30?”

“41.”

“41,” she said. “That’s like, really old."

They scheduled a coffee date for when he returned, at Toi et Moi.

He showed up at 3pm on the dot the following Monday in a black overcoat and matching ushanka, with a red plaid scarf wound tightly around his neck.

She squinted up at him. Was he in costume?

“What are you, Russian?” She asked, once they were seated on the terrace. Her legs felt itchy in her new leggings. She didn’t really like direct sunlight, and she missed her pajamas.

“French.”

“French-Canadian?”

“No, I’m from Lille. Do you know where that is?” She shook her head, and he drew her a map. It looked like a Christmas tree minus the base, with Lille as the star on top.

“Lille is the capital of perfume manufacturing in France,” he said, capping his pen and ordering two hot chocolates with whipped cream.

By the time hers arrived, her hands were shaking. This was her first official date ever, that didn’t begin with making out in the back of a nightclub and end, a few random conversations afterwards, with a text message such as R U 4 REALZ.

“What’s your favorite scent?” he asked, blowing gently on his hot chocolate.

“Do you mean for my personal body or like an everyday smell in the city?”

“Both.”

“Halle Berry’s Wild Essence. But I won’t be able to afford it for several months. And just to smell smell? Dryer sheets. Or cardamom pods.”

They parted at the entrance. He asked to see her again, while they walked toward her bike.

They met at the Japanese Tea Gardens, near the Biodome, that Friday. He paid the admission, $30, and she bowed her head in deference to the Almighty, albeit Canadian, Dollar. They wandered around for the good part of an hour.

“Smell this Iris ensata! Smell this chrysanthemum, this sakura!”

By 8pm she was drunk on scents. Henry attempted a handhold near the exit. She let him. This is like marital arts! she thought. He attempts; I yield or deflect.

From the garden they went to Nouvelle Palaise for poutine and drinks.

She ordered a Ricard and water; he ordered a Manhattan.

“Hanakotoba is fading,” he said solemnly, when their drinks arrived. Conversely to his sober mood, she was practically hopping up and down in her seat.

“What’s Hanakotoba,” she said. She took a pull at her drink and craned her neck to glance down the aisle, looking for their waitress.

“The language of flowers,” he said.

“Mmm,” she said, opening the menu.

“Take you,” he said. “Look at you.”

She looked at him looking at her.

“You’re a living incarnation of Léona Camile Ghislaine Delacourt,” he said.

“Who the hell is that. Some floosy you used to know, in Paris?”

“The young woman upon whom Andre Breton’s Nadja was based.”

“Is that a movie?”

“A beautiful book, about a man following a gypsy who represents a path back to the unconscious, to history, and desire, yet it’s not the linear path he was expecting, so it’s very frustrating. She’s an unreliable muse, so to speak.”

She stared at him blankly. “I have no idea what I’m doing with my life,” she said. “I scrub toilets for a living. I scream in alleys, sing badly and trim my nails in public and sometimes get very very drunk and then make out, or worse, with strangers. My mom is on welfare; I guess that means I am, too, even though we haven't lived together until recently because she has problems with addiction.” She held up the hoodie on her khaki jacket. “This is from Boutique Saint-Jacques, a second-hand store for poor people. The ‘Boutique’ part is false advertising to make us feel like we can afford to shop at an actual retail store like Simons or the Gap. And, I try really hard not to lie, but am largely unsuccessful.” She felt a big wet tear dislodge from her right eyeball, like a glacier. Here it comes, she thought. “Also, I am not a gypsy,” she said primly. “I don’t ragtag around at fire pits with homeless people from Transylvania, singing songs about voyaging across the Bering Strait. I’m a high school junior, and I get mostly A’s.” Her inner lie detector started going crazy. Shit, why? she asked herself, panicking. So what if I haven’t gone in a month, and am technically a sophomore ! I’m still enrolled; at least I think I am, unless my mom got a letter? Shit! Shit!

“In Russian, Nadja is the beginning of the word hope,” said Henry. He reached out, gathered a large section of her long, tangled hair—she had achieved dreadlocks without even trying—and wrapped it around his wrist, but didn’t tug.

“We studied the Russian Revolution in school,” she mumbled. They so did not. She had taken the gateway drug of a semi-truth, and was headed down the slippery slope toward a schizoid split, fast. The Bolsheviks are coming! They’re already here! She speared a pea from their shared chicken and pea poutine and threw it at him. She didn’t get much leverage because they were conjoined not at the hip, but from hand to hair; semi-dry, the pea hit him square on his third eye chakra and bounced right off, like a ping-pong ball.

“Nadja is the stuff of fantasy, in part because she is so flawed and human,” he said. “She makes mistakes. She can be crass and callow. She’s white magic.” He slowly unraveled her hair.

She really had to pee. Now was not the time. And she just wanted to either go sit on Henry’s lap and be pet, or go running down the street, like a bottle rocket. Also she knew the awkward event of the night was nigh: the BILL. She knew what the flip side of the bill read: PUT OUT.

She squeezed her eyes shut.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to decide how I feel.”

“I’d like to meet your mother,” he said. She fingered her fruit loop necklace like it was a diamond lariat.

“Totally unnecessary,” she said. “Would do more harm than good.”

“No, no, I’d like to,” he cooed. “Because you remind me of that hatchling bird in that P.D. Eastman story who leaves the nest, thinking he’s been abandoned, asking a kitten, hen, dog, and cow, ‘Are you my mother?” You’re a surly, woebegone, orphan child! When I touch you, your skin leaps toward mine! You’re not actually in foster care, are you?”

He leaned forward, and cradled her face in his hands. Her heart started racing and she felt a dark mushroom cloud slowing spreading inner gut, like someone had stabbed her behind a curtain.

Agent Orange! Mistaken identity! I’m not the one you’re looking for!

She opened and closed her lips, like a fish. No one had touched her that sweetly in years.

“I’m going to kiss you,” he said. And then he did.

Upon parting, he lent her a copy of Nadja, already on loan from the Grande Bibilothèque.

“Give it back to me, and I’ll return it,” he said. “Or return it yourself, if you’re so inclined.”

She got home after midnight, snuck past the censor (her snoring mother, who took her back in after six months), washed her face, and counted her freckles: she had been doing that for a year as a nightly ritual. It took almost ten minutes, calmed her down and helped her believe in some kind of continuity from day to day, in or on her body. Then she climbed into her twin bed and wrapped herself in her ratty mauve reversible comforter (the other side was dusty rose).

Pretty soon her spirit started speaking, from within her, to Henry, via telepathy.

I have been calling you, across the centuries, since time immemorial, knitting the idea of you, and the prayer of requited love, in my innermost womb! You are wildly, fearfully, and wonderfully made, my caveman lover, my—

“Felicity? Who the hell are you talking to?” Her mother appeared in the doorway, hair a fright. She gave her mom her best Lana Turner smirk.

“Myself,” she said. “Sorry if you don’t have a built-in friend, like me.”

“Go to bed,” she said. When she left, Felicity reached over and turned on her bedside lamp, reminding herself to say a prayer of gratitude for having a bedside table, and a lamp.

Then she opened up Nadja.

The first line: Who am I?

She laid down the book and stared up at the ceiling, deliberating, before opening the book again, as to whom the question belonged: Nadja, or the narrator, the man.