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Authors: Aya De León

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“You really were lucky,” Dulce said. “Everything with Jerry is personal.”“Did he start out as your boyfriend?” Marisol asked, blotting her face with a towel.“He was never really my boyfriend,” Dulce said. “I was just too young and dumb to know that. I met him when I was fourteen. Cutting school with my best friend, smoking weed in the park. He approached us both, but she wasn't interested. He said he wanted to be my man. My friend found out he was a pimp and begged me not to mess with him. Easy for her to say. Her dad lived with them and had a job. I had four brothers and sisters at home in our small-ass apartment, including my big sister with her two kids.”“Your dad wasn't around?” Marisol asked.“Left when I was five,” Dulce said. “My older brother was the man of the house. Every fucking thing fell apart after he got deported. He had his green card, but he was selling drugs. They sent his ass back to Santo Domingo.”“You two were close?” Marisol slid the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet to the side and took out a small tube of lotion.Dulce shrugged. “He looked out for me. The same month he got deported I met Jerry. Hooking up with an older guy with money was like having parents again—at least in the beginning.”Marisol had had a sugar daddy when she was in her twenties. At first it did feel like a fairy-tale rescue. For different reasons, her honeymoon had also been short-lived.“Sometimes it's okay,” Dulce said. “Sometimes me and him and the girls are like a family. His brother Jimmy is kind of a dick. But other times . . .”“Other times you end up in the emergency room,” Marisol said. She capped the lotion and put it away.“I've tried to leave him before,” Dulce said. “I guess I'm not strong enough.”“Here's the thing,” Marisol said, sitting on the edge of the tub. “For almost every woman in a bad situation, it takes more than one try to get out. Maybe your number is two. Maybe five. Maybe more. I've seen girls trying to leave some asshole for ten years. And then one day it clicks. I don't know why. I just know you can't be afraid or ashamed to keep trying.”It had clicked like that for Marisol, the day she decided to get away from her uncle.“I wish I could stay here forever,” Dulce said. She trailed the hand of her good arm back and forth in the bathwater.“Maybe you can,” Marisol said, rubbing the excess lotion into her hands. “You can stay in the shelter short-term, and the case managers can help you figure out your next steps. We've got partnerships for housing, job training, and school. Plus entrepreneurship classes if you wanna stay in the business.”“Now I know why Jerry didn't want us coming here,” Dulce said and closed her eyes again.“Come on,nena,” Marisol said. “We can't have you falling asleep and drowning.”After Dulce came out of the bathroom, Marisol gave her an oversized T-shirt and a clean pair of underwear, and they put her arm back into the sling.Marisol tied Dulce's dark hair in a loose bun on her head, and the two women climbed into her queen-size bed.“So, if your pimp didn't pressure you, how'd you get started?” Dulce asked. She shifted around under the beige down comforter.“Me and my sister were orphaned,” Marisol said with a yawn. Her body felt drained. “I was seventeen, a senior in high school, with an eviction notice in my hand. My little sister was not going into foster care.”“You did it for her?” Dulce asked.“I'd do anything for her,” Marisol said. Under the covers, her hand closed on the locket around her neck. “I haven't seen her in over a year. I usually pay for her to fly here for the holidays, but I was too broke this year.”“I wish I'd had a big sister like you to look out for me,” Dulce said, reaching with her good hand for Marisol's other hand under the covers.“Everybody deserves to be protected,” Marisol said, squeezing Dulce's hand. She smoothed the girl's hair back from her forehead again and again. It was pressed straight and bleached, but it had grown out dark and tightly curled at the roots. Dulce had a pair of deep cuts beneath her bangs. The bruised skin was held together with Steri-Strips. The shape of the cuts looked like heel marks. Marisol recalled tracing her finger along a similar crescent shape on her own jaw, decades before. She let Dulce's hair fall back in place, as the girl began to snore.* * *During Marisol's twenties, she spent two years as a mistress to a Fortune 500 VP named Campbell. After their first night together, she had woken up between Egyptian cotton sheets on a Memory Foam mattress. He left for work saying he hoped she'd still be there when he got home. Finally, she had found a man to keep her. She never bothered to get more than a couple of suitcases out of her dank basement apartment.Other than a little boredom, she had no complaints for the first six months. He wanted her to be on call, in his apartment, for that lunchtime quickie or that casual blow job when he changed for a dinner party with his colleagues. She was a convenience. She slept there, because he might wake up in the middle of the night and want a tumble. She had her own room, as he hadn't wanted to sleep in the same bed with another person. She was more of a workout than a lover, a way to relax and blow off steam.Early in their relationship, there had been dinners, when he had asked her all about herself. She invented a bootstraps Puerto Rican immigrant story, quaint and spunky. When he asked her to quit her “waitressing” job to move in, he explained that he wanted a passionate woman who would be available to meet his needs. He promised he would give her everything: a lovely place to live, the latest technological toys; she could shop from home, buying all the clothes she wanted—within reason. He had a room in the apartment, which had housed his previous mistress, who hadn't understood the arrangement. He provided the money, and she provided a soothing presence.Marisol understood. She aimed to please because it was a good gig. Unlike the ex-mistress, she made friends with the domestic staff, also on call, waiting for “his lordship” to get home and declare his desires. She played dominoes with them, ordered them gorgeous dresses off the Internet. The maid's daughter went to her prom in Prada.Eventually Marisol understood why the ex had gotten stir-crazy. She rarely left the house. She was on call. She needed to be no more than half an hour away from the apartment at all times. You couldn't get anywhere from midtown in half an hour—not uptown to Spanish Harlem, not downtown to the Lower East Side. She almost left him ten months in when she realized he had put a GPS in her cell phone.Her sister was a premed sophomore at Syracuse then. They hadn't seen each other since Marisol had moved in with Campbell, but they talked a few times a week on the phone. Mostly Marisol listened to Cristina's fragmented rants on why the microbial biology prof was an asshole or how the study group system was hard on female students.During one call Cristina asked about their plans for Thanksgiving. It turned out that “his lordship” was going to see his family in Delaware. Of course the mistress wasn't invited. At the last minute, Marisol went upstate to see Cristina. They had Chinese food for Thanksgiving, and later slept in Cristina's twin bed.“I know we don't have money for medical school,” Cristina said over the cartons of takeout. “So I'm thinking of going to school in Cuba. They'll pay for it and everything. But I'll only go if we can still see each other.”“Of course,” Marisol had agreed. “I don't care if you go to Siberia. Wherever you go, I'll always find a way for us to be together.”After Marisol got back to Manhattan, the boredom and the loneliness were worse. One day, she was at her wits' end. Everything on television was stupid, and the cook wasn't coming in until evening. Marisol wandered into Campbell's library. She had dismissed it as a source of amusement because he didn't have any novels, only books on finance. She picked up one of the books,Globalization and Microeconomics in the US,and found herself interested. She devoured the book in the next couple of days. She was glad just to have something in her head other than her own spinning thoughts. She went online and looked at MBA programs. What books were business students reading? His lordship had most of them in his library. Marisol began her MBA training. She supplemented with a few more liberal texts she found online, as well, reading the work of feminist economists, Caribbean economists, socialist economists, liberals, and conservatives.What had been a prison became a graduate program. She looked forward to seeing Campbell when he came home. She asked him leading questions about his company. He went on at length about profit shares and stockholder pressure, interrupting his own monologues occasionally to ask if he was boring her.“Oh no,” she said. “I don't really understand it, but it's still fascinating to hear you talk about it.”After a year, she had read all the books in the library. She did the MBA informally—never set foot on a college campus. She completed her GED and got an online degree in bookkeeping. Wandering through Campbell's study, searching for something to amuse herself, she came across his wall safe—a Superlative model.It took her a week to work up the nerve to touch it. It might have had any number of security measures. But touching someone's wall safe wasn't against the law when you lived there.She slid the picture aside and moved her hand toward the dial. Just one finger. Just a touch. The silver metal was cool. She tapped it twice.Marisol held her breath. No alarm. No lights. She put the picture back and was on edge for the rest of the day. But when his lordship came home, cranky about a board meeting, he said nothing about a safe, an alarm, or anything.The next day, Marisol got some of the maid's latex gloves and began to move the dial.It took her two months and a stethoscope she bought online to learn to listen for theclickof the tumblers. Four months to crack it.As the safe door swung open, Marisol gazed at more cash and bonds than she'd ever seen before in one place. She also found his will. Campbell was leaving everything to a boy in Belgium, a son he never talked about.She closed the safe. She never stole a dime from him in cash. Instead, she would buy designer clothes and then sell them on eBay (never worn—tags still on!). For herself, she started buying business suits and briefcases.She kept practicing safecracking. Blindfolded—so she couldn't see the combination she already knew. She tried it without the stethoscope. After six months she could do it in three minutes. She felt elated every time the safe clicked open.Chapter 5The María de la Vega Health Clinic was one of five adjoining properties on either side of one corner on Avenue C. The clinic faced east, and had been carved out of a brownstone storefront.Marisol had bought the property just after September 11, 2001, in that brief moment when property values in lower Manhattan dipped. At the time, she and Eva were running a clinic in Chelsea. Marisol's down payment included the cash she had accumulated from her eBay racket with Campbell. As time went on, she rented several properties in the adjacent building, as they became available. After the recession hit hard, she began the escort service to supplement the clinic income.Behind a bookshelf in the clinic's fourth-floor hallway, Marisol had cut a door. The bookshelf slid to the side, and the door opened into a small loft in the adjoining apartment building. The “gift gallery” was where high-end clients could select escorts. The loft was leased by Loisaida Talent, but there was no sign on any of the doors or windows. Loisaida Talent was owned by a corporation with an offshore account. The corporation also leased the street-level offices, which were subleased to a chiropractor who worked exclusively with health center clients. Government reimbursements for chiropractic work covered only a tiny fraction of the fees. Most clinic clients couldn't afford the co-pays, but sex workers really needed the bodywork. So the chiropractor was paid mostly with stolen cash. She had an appointment log of phony cash-paying clients, which effectively laundered some of the money. The adjoining door between the properties had been built without city permits and without the owner's permission. Marisol was hoping to pay off the mortgage, close out the escort operation, and Sheetrock over the door before anyone found out. Unfortunately she had just received the official letter from the landlord of the modeling agency and the chiropractor that their leases were up later this year. He confirmed that he would be raising all rents significantly, and the building might be converted into condominiums.By 10 a.m. the morning after she'd met Dulce, she had already walked the girl downstairs to an intake appointment, rushed across town with cash for the van lease payment, and was now sitting in her clinic office waiting for a new client.She kissed her index finger and touched it to the photo of herself and her sister that sat on the desk. For luck. The photo was taken five years before at the airport, just before Cristina left for medical school in Cuba. The two of them were squeezed close, smiling at the camera but both had cheeks wet with tears. That was the last time Marisol had cried.The sisters had similar faces, but Marisol was curvy and dark while Cristina was slender and fair. They had the do-they-or-don't-they likeness of sisters with different fathers. Marisol had never met her dad, who—according to her grandmother—had a temper. She vaguely recalled Cristina's father: a fair-haired charmer who gave Marisol candy when she was little. Apparently, he liked to spread his charms around.Her mother had died over twenty years ago, when she was in middle school. Afterward, Marisol had pestered her grandmother for information about both dads. Her grandmother had given her euphemisms and minor tidbits of information appropriate for an eleven-year-old: Cristina's father was a fantastic cook. Marisol's father was a greatmerenguedancer.Merengue? Later, she wondered whether her father was Dominican.Cristina left for Cuba with a promise to work at the clinic after medical school. Marisol promised there would be a clinic to come back to.As Marisol's watch signaled the hour, the light bulb above her desk blew out. She cursed and scrambled for the legit bulbs in the cabinet. She had kicked off her heels and was on the desk replacing the light when her assistant buzzed.“Stall him for a minute, Serena.”When the client came in, Marisol was sitting at her perfectly illuminated desk, brushing a dust smudge from her slacks.The client was a short white guy with glasses and an upscale suit. He represented Thug Woofer, the notorious gangsta rapper from South Carolina who needed adult entertainment at an engagement party. The idea of matrimony didn't match Woof's bad boy image. He and his entourage had cut a path up to New York, leaving a trail of DUIs and trashed hotel rooms. Thug Woofer had moved into the penthouse of a midtown apartment building to record his next album.Marisol tilted back and studied her visitor. People like him were the reason she'd had the office done in mahogany and black leather. Marisol could have sat in a folding chair at a card table with piles of paper all around her and an old laptop. But for clients like this one, she'd hustled up designer leather furniture, wood panel walls, and a massive wooden desk. Southern exposure brought warm indirect light into the room and sustained several plants. Marisol loved green things at work—plants and money.She dressed to match the office. Dark suits and tailored blouses.She frowned down at her notes from their phone call.“Thug Woofer is getting engaged?” Marisol asked.“His brother,” the manager said. “This is just a small party. Woof, his brother, and cousin. The bachelor party will be much bigger—at least twenty girls. My friend with the Yankees said you could handle it no problem.”“No problem,” Marisol said. “But we have rules. You and I agree ahead of time on the sex acts. I've seen your boy's videos. No one's gonna be putting any of my girls in the trunk of a car. There are a million assholes in this city who cater to any twisted motherfucker. Go find one of them.”“So if my guys want something freaky, your girls are out the door?”“Anything freaky we don't agree to ahead of time,” Marisol said.“What about spontaneity?”“When a contractor remodels your bathroom, you don't ask him to cook you lasagna. These girls are professionals. We negotiate up front on price, terms, and services. No surprises.”“This is bullshit. I can get more bang for my buck at Vixela's.”“Vixela's strip club downtown?” Marisol scoffed. “You want your guys to get caught screwing minors?”“We're buying hookers,” the manager said. “Not exactly legal, anyway. I want my guys satisfied. This isn't a charity event.”“No?” Marisol asked, raising an eyebrow. “Then your Yankees guy didn't mention our biggest perk?”“I don't see any perks,” the manager said. “Sounds like three cranky-ass girls give my guys some listless hand jobs.”“No, honey,” Marisol said. “Three lingerie-model types. Gorgeous and enthusiastic, who will strip, provide private entertainment for each of the three guys, and act like their dream in life is to perform whatever acts we agree upon in this office. Ten thousand dollars for the package. And—” Marisol paused and leaned back in her chair. “Every penny will be tax-deductible.”“What?” The manager blinked behind his glasses.“Your credit card statement will include a donation to the María de la Vega Health Clinic. Our workers will be thanking your guys personally for supporting women's health care.”“You're fucking kidding me.” The manager's mouth fell into an open grin.“You want the write-off, you keep your guys in line.” She showed him where to sign the donation paperwork.“And our gala fund-raiser is tomorrow.” She handed him an invitation. “In case you or Thug Woofer would like to join us.”* * *Marisol liked potential clients to see what the funds were supporting, so she walked the manager out through the clinic lobby. More than a dozen young women, mostly black and Latina, lounged around on couches. On the walls behind them, images of attractive, confident young women from their demographic encouraged them to:Use condoms . . . every time.Watch your drink.Recognize the signs of an abusive relationship.In the background, a bass line thumped from the speakers of a wide-screen TV playing rap videos. In an armchair, one young woman nodded her head to the beat while gluing in a weave for a girl who sat between her knees. The game table held four domino players and a second circle of observers talking trash.“Who's your friend, Marisol?” Nalissa asked, gesturing to Thug Woofer's manager from the domino table.“Business associate,” Marisol said.“If she ain't your friend, I'm tryna be your friend,” Nalissa said.“I like that suit,” another girl said. “You can have more than one friend.”The manager blushed as Marisol walked him past the reception desk and a framed movie poster forLive Nude Girls, Unite!featuring three comic book hero–styled women, half-naked, with a “Strippers Union” picket sign and a fist in the air.Marisol opened the front door and shook the manager's hand.She tilted her head subtly, indicating the young women in the lobby. “If you ever wanted to become a client yourself, we have packages in a wide range of price points.”“Me?” The manager's blush deepened.“Think about it.” Marisol gave him a warm handshake. “A pleasure doing business with you.”Marisol closed the door as a young woman in a bright pink halter top slammed her final domino down on the table. “Capicú, motherfuckers!” she crowed as the watchers erupted in a loud wail that rang throughout the lobby. The other players grudgingly tossed in their leftover tiles and the winner counted the points.As Marisol walked back across the lobby, Nalissa fell into step next to her. “I'm on your drop-in list next week,” she said. “But I can't wait to tell you some of my business ideas—”“Nalissa, you can't charm me like a client,” Marisol said. “By looking sexy and eager. You wanna talk business, but you haven't signed up for a single entrepreneurship class here at the clinic?”“I'm no good at school.”“This ain't school,mami. It's community education.”“I'll sign up right now,” Nalissa said, and headed to the reception desk.The sound of a police siren drew Marisol's eye to the TV screen. A gold-toothed rapper threw money out of a limo as a cop chased him down the streets.Marisol grabbed the remote. “I'm putting the money management video back on.”The women's voices rose in protest.“But it's Thug Woofer!” someone said.“I'd like to be the hoe in the back of his limo,” one girl at the domino table said.“Not if he was throwing out the money,” said Nalissa.“You need to stop trying to be the hoe in the video and be the hoe making the video,” Marisol said. “And aren't you all late for entrepreneurship training?”“Oh shit!” one of the girls said, checking the time on her phone. They all grabbed purses and coats and rushed for the stairs. Nalissa fell in with the group.“Sorry, Nalissa, this session has already started,” Marisol said.“Please, I'm ready to learn,” she said. “And the next session is full.”“Tell her I said to take you in on probation,” Marisol said. “If you're not caught up by next week, you're out.”“Gracias!”Nalissa said, and disappeared into the stairwell.* * *Later that afternoon, Marisol was in the community room, teaching her seminar, “The Happy, Healthy Hoe.” January sunlight filtered into the room.“Everybody's in this business for the same reason,” Marisol said to the thirty or so young women. “You're broke, you got no real marketable skills, but guys will pay to screw you.”She walked over to a young woman texting and raised an eyebrow. The girl put the phone away. “But this is a burnout profession,” Marisol went on. “If you don't plan your future, you'll end up broke, with no marketable skills, and those same guys won't still wanna screw you, or won't wanna pay much.”The young women laughed. Every folding chair in the room was full, and a few of the girls sat on the floor. Against the wall were stacks of foldaway cots and a pile of sleeping bags that came out at night when the room became a temporary shelter.“So be smart,” Marisol went on. “Some countries have government-sponsored retirement plans for their sex workers. Not the U.S.”A wide-eyed Nalissa stuck her head in the door.“Entrepreneurship's not until tomorrow—”“He's got a gun!” Nalissa said. Her arm waved wildly toward the street. “Crazy motherfucker outside the clinic with a gun!”
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