“Are you stripping?” my girlfriend asked me. She stared at the money clip I’d thrown on her coffee table. A crisp fifty dollar bill was folded underneath the clasp.
“What are you talking about?” I asked—aiming for casual, but sounding guilty.
“Something is going on,” she said. “Even when you’re here, you’re not here. The earliest you show up is midnight. You never used to have money, now you have big bills on you all the time. Where’d you’d get that fifty? ATMs don’t give out fifties.”
“This is the craziest thing you’ve ever asked me,” I told her to avoid answering. In my 20s, I was sure that relationships were basically traps. Secrets had to be kept. Otherwise you’d wind up exposed, looking weak.
“Whatever,” she said, lighting a Marlboro cigarette. “All I know is something is going on.”
She was right. The next night I was in my Hyundai Accent at 2:30 in the morning, sitting in the middle of a Ralph’s parking lot somewhere in Orange County, California. I was a 25-year-old straight, Jewish college graduate, from a good family, waiting for a hooker. And I wasn’t even the one getting laid. I was, however, getting paid. The hooker was 15 minutes late leaving our third stop of the night, so I was exhausted. I spaced out on yellow lines and orphaned shopping carts, then stared at my cell phone in my hand, willing it to ring. It was 2:30 am now, hour and a half from here back to the Valley. I wasn’t getting to bed until at least 5 am. My cell phone rang.
“Another hour,” said Chrissy, then hung up.
I flipped through radio stations and chose “One by One” by The Foo Fighters over a guy talking about local boxing. What was I doing here?
The simple answer was that I had credit card debt and rent to pay. I’d responded to an ad in the LA Weekly that read only: “DRIVERS NEEDED.” I was qualified. I called the number, and a women answered with a voice that sounded like a candy apple drenched in syrup.
“Hi, I’m calling about the ad?” I’d asked.
“Well, this is Shayna, and what I do is, I come over, and you get comfortable and I get comfortable and then we take it from there.”
“It just said drivers needed?”
“Oh. Give me your number. He’ll call you back.”
A few days later, I met Troy at a half-moon booth at Denny’s. He slid out a piece of paper that had small circles inside bigger circles. “These are the zones,” he told me. “The further the zone, the more you make.”
I nodded, nervous.
“Is driving hookers-”
“Female Escorts,” said Troy.
“Female Escorts. Is it … illegal?” I whispered.
You don’t break the first rule of Fight Club. You don’t ask Cyrano about the size of his nose. Apparently, you didn’t ask if driving prostitutes around LA was illegal.
“You’re giving a girl a lift to someplace she’s asked you to take her,” Troy said. “You’re going to walk with $300 bucks a night. Can you do that?”
I did. For two years I lived in the West Coast darkness. I spent most nights with other drivers and escorts, waiting in our Van Nuys office for a phone call to take us on the road to guys who perused LA Weekly like it was Chinese takeout. I was finally able to pay my $600 a month rent. But I was lonely and numb, doing a job and living a life I told no one about.
“You will get cuffed at one point,” my fellow driver, Ross, warned as he flossed in the bathroom mirror. “No big deal. I’ll tell you what to say. Cops are nothing to worry about. It’s Troy you gotta look out for. Dude is paranoid! Thinks we’re gonna form like a coup or something.”
“You know what a coup d’état is?” Ross asked Chrissy.
“Yeah,” she said. “It means ‘no worries.’ From the Lion King.”
A week later, Ross’s prediction came true. I dropped Chrissy off and waited in the parking lot of a 7-11. Minutes later, a cop knocked on my window, asking me to step out of the car and turn around. I was now wearing handcuffs. I repeated everything I was told to say.
“I’m going to let you go,” said the officer. “But if I ever see you doing this again …” he shook his head and handed me my ID. “If you plan on waiting for your friend, she’s gonna be a while.”
Chrissy wasn’t so lucky. After she got arrested, I ended up bailing her out that night, waiting until 4 am for her to be released. We left the jail house with our arms around each other, heading back to my car like two injured football players walking off the field.
A year in, I ended up driving Shayna—the one with the syrupy voice. She was gone five minutes when the passenger side door opened and she came right back. “Hell no,” she said.
“Not your type?” I asked.
“Shut up.” She started texting while continuing to talk.
“He wanted to pee on me. I know we all do stuff and I’m sure he’s got some problems, but DO NOT lie to me.”
“Didn’t he say he was looking for the ‘Girlfriend Experience?’” I asked Shayna.
“Exactly,” she said. “Be man enough to say what you want, don’t hide it. You want a golden shower, tell me you want a golden shower.”
“So you’re not angry about the pee, this is about the lie?”
“Duh,” Said Shayna. “Let’s go. I want cheese fries.”
Then as quickly as it began, it ended. Troy disappeared. He said he had to go out of town for some “family business,” and was going to shut the office down temporarily. But we never heard back from Troy, and the Van Nuys office never reopened. I had heard from Ross that a couple of the girls had gone off on their own, relying on regulars. But other than that, we were done.
“Be safe brother. And call me if you need anything,” Ross said as we hung up the phone. There was only one thing I could think to say back. Only one phrase that seemed to mean anything at that moment.
“Thank you,” I told him.
Ten years later, I was in grad school for psychotherapy studying Carl Jung’s idea that there is a darker part of us, more hidden and lesser known living in the shadows. Jung believed that, as overwhelming as it may seem, we need to explore this darker part of ourselves if we are ever going to live the lives that we desire. I learned from experience that this wasn’t just a theory. The San Fernando Valley was dark and hidden in the shadows, as I needed to be.
It was also during grad school that I went on a first date. A few drinks in, the woman I was with flashed a mischievous smile. “Let’s play a game,” she said. “You tell me something about yourself, and I have to guess whether or not it’s true.”
Right away Ross, Chrissy, Troy, and syrupy-Shana popped into my head. It was as if they were all in the room for a moment, making sure I didn’t miss this opportunity.
“I got it,” I said smiling back into the blue eyes of my future wife. “When I was 25 years old, my job was driving female escorts around Los Angeles.”
“Hmmm,” she pondered as she took a drink from her beer. “No way that’s true,” she said.
“Totally, one hundred percent true,” I bragged back.
“Wait what?!” She laughed. “That’s true? If that’s true, I want to hear the whole story!”
“Oh I’ll tell you the story. I’ll tell you the whole truth,” I promised. And I did.
These days, I find myself telling my younger male patients to “lead the least secretive life you can.” I know now that relationships don’t trap us—we do it to ourselves. And discovering, knowing, and ultimately sharing our truth is the only way out.