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The Exchange

In the holding cell in County Jail a beautiful 18-year-old Hispanic girl asked me in a soft voice, "Why are you a prostitute?"

I. In 1986 I went to Bombay as a foreign exchange student. I was 15 years old and I had no clue what I was getting into. All I knew about India came from the glossy pages of a coffee table book: there were marble temples, skinny men in ragged shirts, and women in gem-tone fabrics dunking dirty laundry into the murky Ganges. Two things were certain: it was as far away from home as I could get, and there were camels.

In the Bombay airport, beggars swarmed me. In the streets, people mostly went barefoot. Death was everywhere. Limp bodies covered in jasmine were carried through the streets on stretchers, next to venders selling chickens from a bicycle. Heavy bells rang. Rickshaws zigzagged in the road to avoid the processions.

Children missing fingers and toes from leprosy slept in piles of garbage. I poured rupees into their tin cups like sand. A four-year-old girl held out a cup in one hand and put her other hand to her mouth to imitate eating and stared into my eyes. I thought about sending her to my family back home. “Meet our exchange student,” I’d say.

I was a blond, American, bulimic cheerleader, and in order to relate to life in India I decided to make a new identity for myself. I cut off all of my hair, stopped binging and started reading Rumi, Gibran, Tagore and Calvino. I rode buses and wandered into temples and gazed at luminous statues of Ganesh, Lakshmi, Hanuman and Shiva. I got drunk and smoked hash with the older exchange students. I got into cars with strangers to see what would happen next.

I traded basic algebra for Turner Road, Bombay’s red light district. “Turner Road is where children turn tricks out of cages,” my friend had said. “Stay away from there.” I returned the next day to see the shimmer of metallic red saris wrapped around young girls’ bodies, the flash of gold earrings and the chalky red dots like bulls-eyes on their foreheads, a sign of pujah (prayers). The girls brushed against men in the doorways, then disappeared in the dark.

II. Six years later I was stripping at Market Street Cinema in San Francisco, leaning against walls and waiting for men to touch and pay me. Eighteen years after that, I was meeting men in hotels in Los Angeles—men who’d made appointments with me for a sensual massage.

One warm night in October 2010, I was preparing to go to New York on an early flight the next day. I was scrambling for cab money, cat-sitter cash and a little spending dough—coins for my cup. A man named Joe booked an appointment.

When I arrived at the Kortex Hotel at 9:20 p.m, he was pacing in the small lobby. I walked over to him and gave him a tentative hug. He sat down at a small table where there was a ceramic dish full of wasabi peas, reached in with thick fingers and popped two in his mouth.

“Want a drink?” He swished his beer around before swallowing the last drop.

“No, thanks,” I said. Everything about Joe was big.

“I’m married.” He showed me his ring.

“Lots of people are,” I said.

“This could be a regular thing,” he said.

“Great.” His cell phone sat between us on the table. He glanced at it. I did too.

“So, you do fetishes?”

“I have some clients who are into that. I have equipment,” I said.

“Well I don’t want anything up my butt.” This was meant to make me laugh, so I did.

“Okay. Nothing up your butt.”

“So you’re going to give me a massage?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“And you’re going to give me a hand job?”


“I have two hundred for you but I brought three if there’s more.” More meant more time, which meant we should hurry so I could get him off and get downtown for my next appointment.

We left the lobby and walked out across the parking lot. Two guys were there, hanging out in front of a van. One was bald and the short guy next to him had lots of brown curly hair and glasses.

These guys want to talk to you,” Joe said.

“What?” I asked.

“You’re under arrest.”

The bald guy cuffed me and shoved me into the van.

“Is this real?” I asked.

He pointed to the big gold badge on his chest. “This is real.”

III. In the holding cell in County Jail, a beautiful 18-year-old Hispanic girl asked me in a soft voice, “Why are you a prostitute?” Her eyes were like pools of dark chocolate.

“Do I look like a prostitute?” I sat on a cold cement bench with a black girl’s head on my lap, asleep. I chewed my lip.

“There are five black women, a Hispanic woman and you. You’re a prostitute.” She turned around and hopped up on a ledge and looked out the window then back to me. “Why are you a prostitute?”

“That’s a good question,” I said. If she were Andrea Dworkin, she’d accuse me of being a brainwashed drone of the patriarchy succumbing to violence against women. But I’d never thought of myself as a prostitute. I’d never been a streetwalker or a call girl, never worked for an agency or a pimp. I liked the freedom that stripping and sensual massage allowed me. My body was mine. But not now.

It slowly sunk in: I was going to miss my flight to New York. My cats weren’t going to be fed. My car was going to be towed. My rent was going to be late. And I was in a cage, just like the girls on Turner Road.


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