Lionel was phase two. Located way out in Queens, past the Roosevelt station, his very elaborate instructions became completely cryptic the second I got out of the subway. I was standing right next to an expressway, facing a large shopping mall, with no sign of Junction Boulevard, or anything else I needed to find. I was supposed to go right, but I couldn’t tell which way was right exactly. Who would have thought that I’d be doing so much legwork with my clothes on?
I got cranky. I don’t like feeling so out of my element. I’d been second-guessing my decision to come out here ever since that morning, and now I was tempted to get back on the subway and go back to my safe little apartment in Brooklyn. Only without some kind of job soon, I wouldn’t be able to afford that apartment. I needed something to happen, and maybe that something was Lionel.
I wondered what he would be like. He’d said “the girls” would be getting their nails done, but that they’d make it back for part of my interview. They had some kind of show coming up, Lionel explained. I didn’t ask what that meant. I figured I’d find out when I got there.
The directions he gave me did not include street names or a specific address, yet somehow I finally found his building. It was a towering red brick apartment complex surrounded by countless identical red brick apartment complexes. The unit number Lionel had given me wasn’t an office space, as I’d expected. It was a private apartment, at the end of a long hallway on the eighth floor. Every ounce of common sense told me not to ring the doorbell.
You don’t need to watch a single horror movie to know that a skinny white girl in a short tight red summer dress should not be ringing the doorbell of an apartment in the northeastern part of Queens, at the end of the R line, in a neighborhood that looks the part of the Bronx you only want to see from your car, waiting to meet someone who sounds like a big black man.
But yet, either due to resolve or stupidity, I still reached out to press the doorbell, calling forth the same reserve of strength I had asked for every time I crossed Valentino’s threshold. I was determined to keep pushing my luck, so I rang the doorbell to meet Lionel Brown.
“Come on in,” he said, and in I went.
He looked friendly, with graying hair and a soothing voice.
“Have a seat,” he continued, sounding like James Earl Jones and gesturing towards his two large black leather couches. “I just need to set up my computer.”
He put the Fifth Element on the TV for me and headed into the kitchen. I was amused to see that under the television was a copy of James and the Giant Peach. I wondered if Lionel Brown had kids, or if it was for “the girls.”
After he finished preparing the computer, he called me into the kitchen to show me pictures of two of the girls, Kitten and Crystal (and yes, those were their names). Since the official website wouldn’t be up and running for a few weeks, these were the preview pictures, which the visitor would look at to choose which girl he wanted to pay for. They were pretty tame, no nudity here. From this part of the site, the viewer would have several options: live chat (clothed), live chat (nude), and private shows. The fee, of course, was relative to the service.
At this point, some more people came into the apartment. First was Kenny, who was another large man, and then Eric, who was also a large man. I started to get a little nervous, but I took a deep breath, trusting my friend of a friend’s business partner and remembered to smile – and wouldn’t you know it, they were all quite nice. Then Sandra and Betty came in, all sparkly and chatty, fresh from having their nails done. Everyone introduced themselves and shook my hand, Sandra and Betty a bit gingerly to protect their recent nail jobs.
Eric and Kenny were partners with Lionel. Eric did security and transportation, while Kenny did managerial work and recruiting. They were both friendly and very pleased to meet me. I’d been told that they were having problems recruiting white girls. Sandra and Betty also seemed happy to meet me, coming into the kitchen to ooh and ahh over my pretty face and lovely body. They were both very skinny girls with very dark skin and very long red nails. Sandra exclaimed that I was cute, inspecting me like a small poodle, and then the two of them retreated back to the black leather couches with Eric.
Kenny stayed in the kitchen with me and Lionel, taking over the meeting. He reiterated all the basics I’d covered with Lionel: the tiers, the shifts, the money. They hadn’t decided how much the girls would get, but they were going to charge $5 a minute, and they would probably take a $3 cut off that, which meant that I’d be making $2 a minute, which definitely gave me something to think about.
Kenny also told me about recruiting. For every girl I brought in, I’d get a finder’s fee and ten to twenty percent of everything they made. Once I got fifteen girls, I would get my own site, which meant I wouldn’t have to work anymore. I could just sit back and let the money roll in.
“Once we’re online, and we’ve got everything going,” Lionel told me, a combination of jaded businessman and thrilled entrepreneur in his small Queens kitchen, leaning against his refrigerator, arms folded, a look of complete seriousness on his face, “once we’ve got all expenses accounted for, we figure we stand to make,” he paused again, looking over at Kenny without even a hint of a smile, “eight million dollars.”
Eight million dollars.
I couldn’t even begin to process that much money.
I was still lost in thought, trying to make eight million seem real in my head, when I realized that Kenny was still talking to me, telling me something about parties.
The girls, he explained, didn’t want to work in the clubs anymore, but the site wasn’t online yet, which meant no one was making any money. So Lionel, Kenny and Eric were having parties in the apartment. The girls danced at them, keeping all the money they made, and there was no cut for the organizers.
I wasn’t clear if Lionel, Kenny, and Eric were making money from charging an admission fee or from drinks, or if they were losing money on this endeavor. I couldn’t imagine they were so charitable. Maybe it was an advertising ploy that would pay off later through visits to their website? Apparently, he explained, these parties were filled with “spenders,” people Kenny and Lionel knew who would spend money on the girls, both online and off.
Oh, and then there were the V.I.P. rooms. My ears perked up at that, more out of sordid curiosity than actual potential interest.
“This is a three bedroom apartment,” Kenny explained. “Each bedroom becomes a V.I.P. room.”
The girls weren’t required to work the V.I.P. rooms, it was just an option. “You obviously make more money if you do, but you certainly don’t have to,” he was quick to clarify. “You certainly don’t have to work the parties, either. The parties are just a favor to the girls, to help them pay their bills. Funny thing, though, favor or not,” he continued, “these parties are becoming very successful for all involved.”
I got a meaningful look, to which I responded by saying I would consider becoming part of them, and then Kenny and Eric headed out for other engagements.
Sandra offered me a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke,” I said apologetically. “Thanks, though.”
“Do you drink?” The tone in her voice was definitely “you at least DRINK, don’t you?”
“I drink vodka,” I told her.
I have no idea where that came from, it just sort of came out as a last ditch effort to maintain some kind of standing with her. I knew I’d lose for good if I didn’t lie at this point. I’m not sure if I would have been better off just saying I didn’t drink much. The vodka response did not help my standing. She still seemed confused.
“Do you drink the flavored or the regular?” she asked.
“The regular,” I said.
As if this was, at the very least, acceptable, Sandra came and sat next to me in the kitchen while Lionel and Kenny and Eric finished up their business at the door.
“Where are you from?” she asked me.
I got the same reaction as if I’d said “Uzbekistan.” She kind of blinked at me. To make myself seem more normal, I said I lived in Brooklyn now, a train ride away but still in Queens. Finally—a bonding moment.
“I used to have a boyfriend in Brooklyn!” She looked nostalgic for a second before her face soured. “We broke up when I got pregnant. I had to get an abortion three months ago.” She touched her stomach absentmindedly. And then, as if in response to her own statement, she continued, “I feel woozy.”
“Do you think you’re going to puke or do you just feel dizzy?” I asked, concerned.
“It feels like morning sickness.” She paused. I didn’t know what that was supposed to feel like, so I had no idea what to say. Then she said, “I think I’m pregnant again.”
Sandra lapsed into silence as Lionel came back and started talking about this new strip bar called “The Airstrip,” which had just opened near Kennedy Airport. If you danced there, you got driven in and out of Manhattan. Apparently, the place was really nice and super posh.
“You wouldn’t even know it was a strip bar,” Lionel said. “The girls get to eat scallops.”
“They keep the air conditioning so cold, you don’t even break a sweat dancing!” Sandra added.
“There are also monitors everywhere telling you when planes were leaving and taking off.” Lionel laughed at the thought. “Sandra auditioned for ‘The Airstrip,’” Lionel said. “It hasn’t opened yet because the inspectors are making it as difficult as they can – not showing up when they are supposed to, not returning phone calls, the usual.”
“I don’t feel well,” Sandra said abruptly and left the room.
I figured this was my chance to get out, and I stood up to leave.
“There’s a party here next week. Then there’s one in Brooklyn the following week, then one in Virginia. You’re welcome at any and all…but only if you want to. You don’t have to come, obviously.”
“Okay.” I appreciated their insistence at keeping me reassured. “Where are we leaving things with the website? What happens now?”
“It’s up to you. All you have to do is make an appointment to shoot the preview pictures and figure out when you want to work.”
I nodded. It all sounded good. I just had to figure out if I wanted to do it. It felt like a commitment, and any kind of commitment to this industry made me nervous. I was comfortable sticking my toe in the water but jumping in all the way felt reckless and possibly dangerous. At least with Valentino’s, I could choose never to return. With this situation, I was literally signing on a dotted line.
“I hope to see you again.” Lionel shook my hand.
“Be safe,” Betty told me, emerging from the living room to kiss me on the cheek.
I kissed her back. “Tell Sandra goodbye for me.”
“No problem, honey,” she said sweetly, showing me out the door.
I told myself that online porn might be an easy and painless way to make all the money I wanted, while also allowing me to discover my inner sexuality without the emotional drain and dreaded physical contact. It was as if, separated by technology, I could pretend the same losers that depressed me so much weren’t actually the ones paying my bills. If I didn’t have to force myself to smile while avoiding their sweaty palms and depressing life stories, I could focus all my energy at bringing Karla to life, maybe even making her a real part of me.
Nonetheless, as soon as I got home, I sent my resume off to twenty legit jobs. Maybe if I found something respectable, I’d never have to see Lionel and the girls again. Staring at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, looking at my naked body, I knew I wanted to feel desired again, I just didn’t know how to get there.