This was supposed to be the easy part. The first day of class, no one knew anything; sure, there was the course description and syllabus, with office hours and expectations, posted for all to see. But since the undergraduate seminar, entitled “Working It: The American Day Laborer As Prostitute,” had not officially begun, not a single one of the twenty-odd students packed into the small conference room had a leg-up on anything.
Mona had meant to be there early. Even though she had enrolled online and was guaranteed a seat, there were always students desperate to add a few credits at the first class, students who might, through the power of flattery or dramatics, convince a weak professor to let them in and turn away a student who was enrolled but who was not there on time. But she had awoken with that queasy feeling again and by the time she was able to leave her dorm room (which was really a small apartment in a quasi flea-bag hotel near Washington Square where the university was housing excess students) she had visited the bathroom three times.
“Hello,” the professor said when she entered the room, mouthing silent apologies, “join us.” You could tell he was the professor because he probably fifteen years older than anyone else in the room and was sitting at the head of the conference table around which the students were rung. There were a few outliers, sitting at too-small classroom desks that surrounded the main table, but there was only one empty seat: Right to the left of the professor.
“And you are…?” he said, checking her name off on a printout of registered students after Mona muttered it twice. She was aware of the other students staring at her, some chewing gum as they gazed, like cows beside a stream. “Well, we’re just getting started,” he said, sliding a copy of the syllabus before her. He sported a turtleneck beneath his corduroy jacket, despite the warm weather; his fingers were slim and manicured and his left hand bore a wedding band.
“I’ve written my name and my office hours on the chalk board,” he continued and on cue Mona turned in her seat to admire his cursive white script. “But they’re printed on the syllabus as well.” She whipped her head back and stared at the top of the page – Tues-Thurs 2:30-4 – and she felt like a child in a play. Enter the Country Maiden.
“What if we can’t see you then?” Someone had come in after Mona, she was grateful to see, a shaggy skateboarder who now held his big board in one hand and a bagel in the other.
“And you are…?” She glanced at the professor’s profile: he had longish sideburns and sweptback hair, even if it began rather high up on his forehead.
“Aw, I’m not registered in this class,” said shaggy. “I was hoping I could, like, add.”
The professor capped his red pen. Christopher was his first name, that big rolling C behind her cresting like a wave. “It doesn’t look good right now,” he said to the boy and Mona was happy to be on the list. “And there’s no eating in here.”
There were other rules, and some “pro forma business,” he said, smiling slightly again as if it were beneath him, and them, to talk of such matters. But if for some reason you were handicapped, he told them, there was an office for that. Mona still thought of wheelchairs but she had come to understand that some handicaps were invisible.
“And now I’d like you to tell me something about yourself,” he said. He folded his hands and placed them over the sheet of paper before him, leaning forward to show how much he was looking forward to hearing from them. “Your name, where you’re from, your major – if you’ve declared one.” Nervous laughter flickered like lightening bugs in the trees. “Oh, and tell us your employment history. I know a lot of haven’t had a job yet, which is fine. But given the subject matter of this class it would be helpful to know your work experience.”
Around the room she could sense her classmates coming to attention: Something was being asked of them! Those who had been taking notes stopped; those who had been glancing at their iPhones put them aside. Mona felt sick: Professors always went counterclockwise, she was the first person to his left, and her mind was miraculously blank – even though he just wanted to know her name and where she was from. This part was supposed to be easy.
“So we’ll go around the room, and this time, just to be different, we’ll go clockwise.” Mona felt a rush of relief. The girl with the long blonde hair on the other side of the professor had never stopped taking notes on her laptop – it was as if she was a court stenographer – and she started when he turned to her and smiled.
“Oh my god!” She stopped typing and pulled an errant strand of hair behind her ear before smiling confidently and sitting up straight. “Me?”
And around they went, like a bunch of latter day pilgrims, telling their tales. Many people her age loved to talk about themselves, while a few acted as if it was an incredible imposition. A lot of them hadn’t worked before (she was not surprised to learn) though there was the odd summer job, the internship where their parents knew someone.
The relief Mona had felt at not being called on first morphed back into fear as each successive student spoke. It was coming around, like a plague, and she would be last now. A few of her peers were funny, and quite comfortable being in the spotlight. Others were achingly sincere in their interest in “the working class,” as a few of them insisted on calling them. As her fear began to rise again, blocking each sentence she tried to formulate in her mind like a goalie blocking a shot, she understood that she must be a member of the working class, though she felt unworthy of any study.
“My name is Mona Bellamy,” she said in her mind several times, and then she choked. And what? Did it matter that she had transferred here from New Paltz as an English major but was thinking now of switching to sociology? Or that she had worked since she was in high school, first serving shakes at the Dairy Queen in Wappingers Falls, and then selling handbags at the Coach factory store in Central Valley? Or that she had found a job here in retail, selling suits at a Hugo Boss store, which involved smiling a lot and being hit on all the time? Or that the men she worked with hated her because it was so easy for her to make a sale; all she had to do was compliment a man – “You know, that jacket makes you look about ten pounds lighter” – and it was a done deal, unless they were gay? But that none of the salesmen could be mean to her because they understood that she was with Tom now, even if he hadn’t called her in five days, even though she had left, like, a million messages?
“And you?” Everyone had spoken now and all eyes were on her, or all eyes that weren’t on the clock. This round of introductions had taken the whole period and people were ready to go, coats half on, backpacks at the ready.
Mona tasted the bile in her mouth again and pushed the chair back. It squeaked like a mouse caught in a trap. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Since when is ‘dialogue’ a verb?” Christopher whispered to the man beside him. They were on the highest tier of a lecture hall watching the faculty meeting unfolding below them. Someone from the history department had just said they would like to dialogue with the sociology department about something.
His fellow backbencher was an older media professor named Daniel, who wore his gray hair in a Roman senator’s cut and had tenure and cared less for these proceedings than Christopher did. He turned the laptop he had been studying in Christopher’s direction, keeping a straight face.
“What do you think she’s unhappy about?” he whispered.
Christopher glanced at the screen, trying to keep one eye on the dean, who was now reading from some notes. The image Daniel presented him with was that of a naked girl in her twenties, with tattooed breasts and pierced nipples, staring frankly back at him. He felt himself blush and turned away without saying anything.
“Don’t worry, it’s research,” said Daniel in a husky low voice. “A site called Suicide Girls. It’s okay because they’re not being exploited! Makes you want to be a suicide counselor.”
“If I could have everyone’s attention?” The dean was addressing the room at large but seemed to be directing his remarks at Daniel and Christopher, up in the cheap seats. He peered up at them over his spectacles, looking to Christopher like a mole in a well, and said, “Perhaps everyone would like to move down a little?”
This was Christopher’s first faculty meeting of the fall, though it was more than a month into the semester already. He hated these gatherings, with their indecipherable agendas and grievances, the language (fungible and pedagogy were words the dean liked to say), the grandstanding. Given the small stakes in academia he often felt like he was watching children fighting over an imaginary pie.
He had time to kill though; a student counselor wanted to meet with him about one of his students but couldn’t do so before four. Christopher glanced surreptitiously at his watch as he gathered his things to move down a few rows. Daniel stayed right where he was.
When the meeting was over Christopher considered his options. He could go to his office, where Alice would find him, or he could head for the gym on 14th Street where he could leave his cell phone in a locker. No contest.
Though he hated the gym almost as much as his wife’s phone calls: the running in place, the lighting, and the awful music that seeped in even when he was listening to his iPod. In the middle of the afternoon he pretty much had the place to himself, though; there were a few women on treadmills and a few men with hairy backs, straining under massive free weights.
There was a new piece of equipment in the cardiovascular room, a stationary bike with a screen in front of it. You chose your path and your level of difficulty and then a road appeared before you, filled with animated bikers. Christopher chose a program called Moody Ambush (“Follow the leader or chase your ghost!”) though as he pedaled over hill and dale he never once was ambushed. He never had the sense of actually going anywhere, either. He just stayed in one place and the road came at him.
After thirty minutes he’d had enough, even though he had hardly broken a sweat. It was just too boring. He still had enough time to take a sauna before he showered. In the locker room he took off his gym clothes and did not check his cell phone for messages.
There was a small dry sauna in the back of the locker room and on good days it was as hot as a coal bed in there; this was not one of the good days. Christopher knew as soon as he opened the door to the wood-paneled room that the heater wasn’t working – it was probably warmer outside – but he took a seat anyway, careful to cover his private parts with a towel when he sat down. He opened the door and pushed the button that activated the heater. Nothing. He felt a surge of rage and then felt it recede, like a tide. He tried sitting again for a moment and then stood with a great sigh and headed for the showers.
He was listening to the messages on his cell phone (three, two from Alice) as he walked out of the gym. Rather than call his wife back he stopped to say something to the man dispensing towels. He was a tall, rather effeminate black man that Christopher knew in passing: not by name, of course, but he recognized him. He had enormous pectoral muscles and a pencil-thin moustache.
“I hate to bother you,” Christopher said, “but the sauna upstairs isn’t working. Again.”
The towel man groaned dramatically and rolled his eyes. “Oh, I knew it!”
“It just seems to happen a lot,” Christopher said. “Could there be something wrong with the heater?”
“It’s not the heater.” The man leaned toward him, conspiratorially. “One of our members pours water on it.”
“That’s what we keep saying! It’s not a steam room; it’s a dry sauna!”
“Well, can’t you just get him to stop?”
“He denies it!” He looked over Christopher’s shoulder and whispered. “But I know it’s him!”
“What does he look like?”
“He’s Indian or something. Always dresses in a suit. He’s some kind of lawyer, I guess, but now he’s in here at all hours.” He looked around the gym again as if the culprit might sneak up on them. “I hear he was disbarred.”
Christopher agreed to keep an eye out for the disgraced Indian attorney and headed for the street, having gotten neither a proper workout nor a sauna. He waited until he was outside the building on 5th Avenue, where the counselor’s office was, to call his wife back. Alice answered on the first ring.
“Where have you been?” she said.
“I was at the gym.”
“When are you coming home?”
“Because I had a faculty meeting today, remember? And now I have to meet with a counselor about one of my students who is in crisis, and that’s starting right now.”
He tried to add some urgency to his voice but Alice ignored it.
“We have a little bit of a crisis here,” she said. She’d had a cold for a month it seemed, and now it sounded to Christopher like she was talking through a cardboard tube. “The school called about Amelia again; they said she was showing her cuts to people on the playground.”
“Oh, God.” Christopher was aware of the sound of his own walking, a passing siren, the honk of a bus. He couldn’t think of what else to say.
“This isn’t natural, Christopher.”
“I’m not saying it is.” He tried to think of what the doctor they’d seen had said. “It’s far more common in older girls. Maybe she’ll be over it by the time she gets to high school.”
“Well, there’s a positive outlook!”
“Look, Alice, I don’t know what you expect me to do about it now. I’ll be home as soon as I can.” He made a show of looking at his wristwatch as he spoke, as if she could hear the gesture. “I did tell you about this. And I put it on the calendar.” They shared a Google calendar where he put all of his appointments and she put almost none of hers.
“Oh I’m sorry! I forgot to look and see what I wasn’t going to do today. You see I don’t get to go to meetings, or have lunch, or go to the gym.”
Christopher held the phone out away from him. Who said anything about lunch? Just then a girl from one of his classes walked up the steps past him and smiled meekly. Her plaid skirt was held closed with a giant safety pin.
“I have to go now,” Christopher said into the phone, stepping into the warren of administrative offices where the counselor was housed. He hoped being inside would cause the connection to drop but he could still hear Alice loud and clear.
“Well, good luck with your crisis!” she said. “I sure hope your student is okay!”
He closed the phone on her sarcasm and headed for the counselor’s office.
The counselor was a woman named Karen Price who acted as if she had met Christopher before, right down to asking how Alice was. She could have got that from my file, Christopher thought to himself until she squeezed his hand softly when she mentioned his daughter.
“Oh, she’s fine,” he answered noncommittally. “Middle school and everything. New challenges.”
“Really?” Karen sat down and looked at him with a look of astonishment, as if he’d said that Amelia had joined Cirque du Soleil.
“Well, she’s eleven,” Christopher continued, taking a seat across the desk from her. “That’s kind of when kids do that.”
“Of course.” He was about to say more – this woman was a counselor, after all, who still worked with teenage girls, maybe she could say something reassuring about this habit Christopher’s daughter had acquired of cutting and scratching herself – but then Karen opened a blue folder in front of her and he understood that the time to talk about his family was over. She glanced at the contents of the folder and then closed it again and set her glasses on top of it.
“So we’re here to talk about Mona Baldwin.”
“I believe her last name is ‘Bellamy.’”
Karen opened the folder, put her reading glasses on again and looked at the name and laughed. “I don’t know where I got Baldwin.” She looked at Christopher. “Anyway, you alerted us to the fact that she had now missed three classes.”
Christopher had followed the procedure dictated by the college, emailing the student in question and cc’ing the counseling office. Four absences meant an automatic fail.
“And it’s only October,” said Christopher. “And I never heard back from her.”
Karen nodded and removed her glasses again. From the grimace she made Christopher gathered that she was the bearer of bad news but she was still smiling a little.
“I’ve been in communication with Mona and her parents.” She looked at Christopher. “I’m going to need to ask you for a special dispensation in this case. She’s had some serious problems. Very serious problems.”
She made a sort of face, widening her eyes and clamping her lips, as if she wanted to say more but the room might be bugged.
“I understand,” said Christopher, though he did not. He tried to remember Mona Bellamy: She had dark hair and big breasts and had sat right next to him the first day and in the back of the class every day since. On the days she hadn’t missed, that is. He honestly could not remember her saying anything in seminar.
Ms. Price looked at her open door – someone was vacuuming down the hall – and then got up to close it. She sat behind her desk and then leaned forward and whispered, “She tried to kill herself.”
“Oh my god!”
The counselor sat back and seemed satisfied with Christopher’s response. “I know. That’s confidential, of course.”
“Of course.” He delved into his brief case and pulled out an old-fashioned roll book. He flipped through the pages and said, “Is she okay?”
“She wants to come back to school Monday. She’s been upstate with her family but sounds really good on the phone. She’s getting professional help and I reminded her: I’m always available.”
Christopher looked at the pages of his roll book. “She hasn’t told me what she’s doing for her term project yet.” He glanced at Karen. “Students are supposed to spend the semester researching some aspect of the work force. They’re to spend time with workers in a particular field with a particular emphasis on exploitation.” He returned the book to his briefcase. “Everyone was supposed to have met with me two weeks ago.”
Karen folded her hands on the blue folder again and looked at them. She seemed to be peeking underneath her cupped palms as if she had something trapped in there. “Well that may have been right in the middle of her crisis.” She laid her hands flat. “Though I really can’t say much more than that.”
“I wouldn’t – “
“She had an abortion.” The counselor lifted her hands as if Christopher had pried the information from her. “And I guess the father was a real bastard about it. Her boss, Mona’s father said. He wanted to come down here and wring this guy’s neck. But you didn’t hear that from me.”
Christopher felt suddenly stunned by the amount of unwanted information he had been given. He could not remember what this girl’s face looked like and yet now he knew that she had aborted her boss’s baby and then tried to kill herself. “Well, I suppose if she could come see me before our next class – “
“I knew you would understand!” The counselor stood again and opened the office door. The sound of vacuuming was overwhelming; a janitor stood right across the hall from them, banging the extension hose from a vacuum clear into the wall as he ignored them both.
Christopher gathered his things hurriedly – Karen Price stood like a sentry, waiting for him to leave – and he shouted to her as he brushed past: “She can always take an Incomplete.” But the white noise swallowed his words.
Mona hoped no one would notice when she came back to the hotel, and then she hoped they would. She didn’t have a roommate – the Chinese girl she’d roomed with had left two weeks into the semester and she never got a replacement – so there was no one to notice that she hadn’t been around. Except for Doug, across the hall. He was the one who had told her that the black guy on the floor below – the one who always wore a different tracksuit – was a pimp. She hadn’t believed until she was in the elevator late one night and he got on alone with her and whispered as she exited, “Baby, you are sitting on a gold mine.”
Doug was an American history major and when she had told him about her sociology course he had said they should take a walking tour of the great historical labor sites in the city. “You know, the Triangle Shirt factory was right by Washington Square,” he said. “And Union Square was where they held the first Labor Day celebration.”
Tom had laughed when she told him about Doug’s offer. “Jesus, that’s this guy’s idea of a date?” But Tom was gone now and Doug was here, opening his door as Mona fumbled for her keys.
“Hey, where you been?” He wore a black beard that covered up his pockmarked complexion. She could hear music playing softly in his room and smelled what was either marijuana or cabbage.
“Oh, hey.” She turned to look at him now. Her arms were hanging at her side and she was conscious of the long sleeves that covered her wrists. “I just went to spend some time with my mother. She’s been really sick.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. She gonna to be all right?”
“Yeah, she’s better now.” Her mother had been the one to tell Mona to keep her excuses simple, but Mona felt the need to embellish. “The doctors thought it was that bird flu but now they’re not so sure.”
“Oh, wow.” Mona couldn’t tell from his expression whether or not he was worried about being infected of if he was just stoned. “Well, you’re back just in time. I’m having a party tomorrow.”
“Oh, thank you. It’s just I’ve missed so much school and all.” She could hear the CD in his apartment skipping. “Is there, like, an occasion?”
Doug shrugged made a sort of comic frown. “Who needs an occasion, you know? We’ve all been studying so hard that I’m calling it the ‘Know-Nothing Party.’” He smiled, pleased with his own joke.
“Well, thanks for the invite. Maybe I’ll drop in,” she said as she opened her door and pushed through with her overnight bag.
“I don’t think you’ll have a choice,” he said. Lying in her room that night, listening to the sounds of her neighbors, Mona found herself dreading Doug’s party. Anytime anyone in the building had a party it spilled out into the halls and usually into the rooms of the neighboring apartments and even if she tried not to go, there would be people right outside her door, shouting and smoking until early in the morning. She could try going out but when she came home it would still be going on. And if she tried to stay inside and ignore them they would know she was hiding, unless she turned all the lights off and didn’t leave all day and didn’t make any noise. She was sorry now that she’d come back to New York City.
Mona usually worked on the weekends but she hadn’t been to the store in three weeks and figured they must have got the message by now. She hadn’t actually told Tom she was quitting, not after that awful weekend in Cape May, but he was a big boy: He must have figured it out. She didn’t care one way or the other.
This was how she had been feeling before she cut herself and her therapist had warned her about feeling that way again. “When you start playing that little tape,” she’d said, “the one that says ‘no one cares if I live or die,’ then you need to call someone. Get out and see some people.”
So after killing some time on Saturday night – a slow-motion dinner alone at the vegan place on West 4th, a French movie at the IFC that she didn’t understand – Mona returned to her floor to find Doug’s party in full swing. She had to squeeze to get past people in the hallway, a bottle of cheap California chardonnay tucked under her arm like a football. She didn’t stop at her room, a decision made easier by the fact that there was a young man with a watch cap pulled down to his eyes leaning on her door in a serious state of inebriation; instead she pushed into Doug’s place with a fixed smile on her face. The music was loud but the crowd was even louder, in order to drown out the music. She recognized a few people from school but no one seemed to look at her.
She found Doug in his tiny kitchen. He was wearing a sombrero and his mouth was hanging open. He shut it when he saw Mona.
“Hey, you made it!” He went to give her a hug, as if they meant something to each other, and she used her free arm to check him.
A blonde woman about Mona’s age stood across from him, smoking a cigarette in a holder by the open window. She was wearing black leather pants, knee-high black leather boots, long black gloves and a leather bustier. A man was sitting on the floor beside her, his face buried in his arms. Mona was afraid that he might be getting sick.
“This is my friend Angie,” Doug said. The woman blew smoke at him and hissed a correction.
“Lilith!” Mona couldn’t tell if she had a lisp or was just slurring her words.
“Oh, right: Lilith.” Doug smiled as if it was a big joke but when the woman did not smile back he bolted from the room. “We got to make a beer run!” he said as he left.
“Hi, I’m Mona.” She looked around for a wine opener, or even a clean surface to set her bottle down, and saw neither. Empty cans and plastic cups covered every inch of the counter. She noticed that the ash on Lilith’s cigarette was about to fall and she wondered if she should say something – honestly, the floor was so filthy who would notice? But Lilith lowered the cigarette in the direction of the man sitting on the floor and leaned her head in his direction.
“Open, bitch!” she said, and the man opened his eyes and stuck out his tongue. Lilith knocked the ash onto his protruding tongue and then he pulled it back in, like a frog with a fly, and closed his eyes again.
“Toby here is my little slave bitch,” Lilith said, and grabbed the man by his short, gelled hair. Mona could see now that he was older, maybe in his thirties, and he had scars and burn marks on his arms.
Mona couldn’t think of anything to say. Lilith’s outfit reminded her a little of the Catwoman but that seemed like a stupid observation. Lilith dragged deeply on her cigarette and turned to Mona.
“So are you a history major, too?”
“Uh, no,” said Mona. The silent man kneeling on the floor was making her nervous. “I was an English major but I’m thinking of switching to soc. Or psych, maybe.”
“I was a psych major,” Lilith said. “Boring. Though you do get to read about social deviants.” She laughed. “Now I’ve switched to art history.”
“Oh! I didn’t realize you were a student.”
“What, you think I went around dressed like this all the time?” Mona looked Lilith in the eye now – she had green eyes, very striking. She seemed to be asking for Mona’s approval.
“I’m having trouble with my soc class,” Mona said. She peeled the plastic off the top of the wine bottle and realized that it was a screw top. She opened it as she spoke and seeing no clean cups in the kitchen, raised the bottle to her lips and took a drink. She immediately saw the face of her therapist and then took a deeper pull to wash the image away. Then she handed the green bottle to Lilith who took it with a smile and drank from it herself.
“Boring professor?” Lilith asked.
“No, I like the professor. He’s kind of cute, actually. But I’m supposed to be writing about work, you know? And the only work I know about in New York is retail clothing, which just seems so pointless.”
“Well, why don’t you write about my job?” Lilith said with a laugh. She spread her arms, an open bottle in one gloved hand and a cigarette holder in the other. “I’m working right now.”
And even before they had gone through the bottle – even before they shared a few bong hits and before she watched Lilith put her cigarette out on Toby’s tongue and sent him packing after taking money from his wallet; before they staggered over to Mona’s apartment and even before Lilith told her about growing up ugly in a small town in the south, or volunteered the story of her own suicide attempt and the girls compared scars – Mona knew what she wanted to write about.
Christopher thought of meeting Mona in a coffee shop – he found his own office claustrophobic – but was afraid he would not recognize her. So she came to his office, a windowless cubicle on the basement floor.
“Don’t worry about the absences,” he said as soon as she sat down. “I’ve talked to Ms. Price and agreed that we would just overlook those. You just can’t miss another class.”
The girl relaxed slightly – how had he not noticed her before? She was actually rather stunning, with dark brown eyes and milky white skin. As he spoke she removed a couple of pages from her backpack.
“I found a really great project,” she said, handing him the papers. He uncapped his pen and began to read her proposal silently.
At first he thought maybe she had misunderstood the subtitle of the course – I didn’t mean literal prostitutes, he was about to say – but the use of politically correct terms like “sex workers” and “patriarchal system” saved him from thinking she was that simple. He read through the proposal twice and then covered his mouth.
“Well, this is very interesting.” He looked at her for a clue but she was not smiling as she nodded.
He cleared his throat. “Though there are of course questions of legality – “
“Everything they do is completely legal,” Mona said. “It’s consensual, between adults. And it’s not even sex, really.”
“So would you go to this dungeon?” he asked.
“I’d sure like to.” She looked like she was ten years old when she said that, like she was saying she’d like to go a petting zoo. “But not, you know, for a session or anything.”
“But just to, like, interview the girls and stuff. See what their working conditions are like. Though I’m not sure my boss would let me.”
“Their boss, you mean.”
“Yeah, isn’t that what I said?”
Christopher turned the paper over, as if there might be something written there. “Well, you’ll have to hurry. The first report is due next week.”
“So it’s okay?”
He nodded and she exploded with relief. “I was so worried!” she confessed, picking her backpack up from the floor. She paused before leaving to look at a photograph of Amelia in a ladybug costume.
“Is that your daughter?” she asked.
“Yeah. She’s a lot older than that now.”
Mona’s topic proved to be quite popular in class. When she read her first report a few weeks later the rest of the class was respectfully silent until the end.
“Wow, what a great choice of subject!”
“How did you find these women?”
Most of the student’s subjects had run the gamut from predictable (restaurant workers, often at places they themselves worked) to the impossible (prison guards, one boy had wanted to cover, with no idea how to gain access). Mona had managed to come up with an exotic topic and she had an in: She knew a real live dominatrix.
Mona seemed to transform, right before his eyes, from this meek and troubled soul to a seminar star: one of those bright, confident students that people made a point of listening to. She did not miss another class and she no longer sat in the back but moved ever closer to Christopher over the course of the semester, even replacing the blonde stenographer one day.
It became apparent in discussion that other students knew people who worked in the sex trade and Christopher pretended not to be surprised. There was some healthy debate about the significance of the work; Mona defended her subjects by using the word “empowerment” a lot, while one girl wondered whether or not the work itself was degrading to women.
“How can it be,” Mona said, “when it’s the men who pay to be degraded?”
Christopher’s only concern throughout was that Mona might be too close to her subjects. “One of the things that sets us apart as sociologists is our dedication to objectivity,” he said to the class. They loved it when he referred to them as colleagues. “Otherwise we’re nothing but journalists.” That always got a laugh.
They got to know her subjects by semester’s end, and the mundane reasons many of them worked at the dungeon (it beat waiting tables was the common response). What she was not able to tell them was why the men enjoyed the abuse. When one of her peers wouldn’t let it drop, Mona finally said in frustration, “We’re not psychologists, you know!”
Christopher tried to lie back during these exchanges, let the students query each other. He thought of something he had heard in a parent’s support group, from a father whose son had been hurting himself. “It’s like his mind gets locked in these patterns of behavior,” he told the group, “and he uses the pain to break the cycle. And to see if he can still feel something.”
The last time he saw Mona she was sitting with a man in Le Pain Quotidien, wearing a pair of expensive black boots. He was older than her and very attentive and Christopher thought it did not look like a date. But he was past judgment, he told himself, and besides, he had already filed his grades.
Walking back toward school he thought of suicide – not in a personal way, just on how people could turn, like planets orbiting the sun. Light one day and dark the next. Did he care if Mona had a new job? Did he even know that she did – did he even know anything? He thought of his daughter who seemed fine on the surface, but would spend hours finding new places to scratch herself. The legs were big this week, and he and Alice had to be grateful for the cooling weather. He took to buying his daughter stockings on his way home from school.
Alice was probably wondering where he was; he had left his phone in his office when he went to get coffee. It was unfair of him, he knew, to not join her in worrying but what good did it do? It was like having someone join you while you wished it would rain, or wished it would stop.
Standing outside the building, the heat of the latte burning his hand through the cardboard, he suddenly dreaded going back to his windowless cell. He headed for the gym.
He chose a more challenging ride on the bike this time; you could get your heart going if you just bumped it up to the next level. There was one called Oh Mama but he settled on a route called Rough Rider – 8.3 imaginary miles in the company of other avatars.
The gay black man was dispensing towels. He smiled when he saw Christopher coming.
“How’s that sauna today?”
“It was fine this morning – but I saw our friend heading up there earlier.” He leaned over to whisper and Christopher got a whiff of cloves. “Let me know if you catch him in the act!”
But there was no one in the men’s locker room when he got there, just row after row of padlocked boxes. He had managed to break a sweat this time and thinking about his workout he realized why he thought it was important to stay in shape: It was for his daughter. He knew he needed to shoulder more of the burden of his care, to release Alice from her bondage. He had cast her in the role of the shrew while he tried to outrun his responsibilities to his family.
Over the disco music Christopher heard a hissing sound, like someone pouring water on burning coals. He was wearing only his underwear and didn’t want to get dressed to find someone from the gym. He would confront the offender himself.
Christopher opened the door of the sauna. There stood a rotund Indian man with an empty plastic cup in his hand. The air inside was damp and hot and tasted of ash and tears, and the man was naked save for a towel around his waist, as he turned to face his intruder, daring him to speak.