It was a stupid idea. It was stupid, it was illegal, and it went against all of her principles.
“In fact,” she said as they stood outside the door, “I’ve changed my mind. You go. I’ll stay home and play video games.”
“Really?” Nick said. “You’re ditching me here?”
“Well, yeah. That’s what ‘changed my mind’ means.”
“But this was your idea.”
“I know,” she said, now fiddling with her jacket. “I think it was the alcohol talking. But you said you wanted to try. You don’t need me there.”
Now, Nick looked embarrassed. “It’s kind of a weird thing to do alone, isn’t it?”
“Don’t most people do it alone? It’s not like I’d be with you.”
“Yeah, but it’s less funny if it’s just me. Besides, Jonny said this place was good.”
“Oh, well, if Jonny says so…” She sighed. “How’s this? I’ll come in, but wait in reception?”
“God, that’s almost worse. That’s like you’re my mum.”
“Nope, not going there. Hey, you told me to hold you to this. I know I want to do it too and here I am but still. We agreed: if we’re going down, we’re going down together.”
She hesitated as she remembered the previous day’s drunken and bitterly honest conversation. How she’d suggested this in a moment of frustration, and Nick had leaped on it because it had been so long for him and he was morose after his last break-up. How, somehow, it had spiralled into reality. Because this was how she’d prove she wasn’t-
“OK,” she said. “But if I change my mind again, can we leave?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Any time.” He paused. “But let’s never tell anyone about this, ever.”
“Not even Jonny?”
“Especially not Jonny. Christ, can you imagine what he’d say?”
“Alright,” she said, a shaky laugh expelled from her lips. “Let’s go.”
She didn’t know what she’d expected: maybe something dark and dank, or maybe loud, filled with flashy neon lights. But the inside just looked like the inside of a normal house. It was weirdly disappointing.
She didn’t get long to inspect. They were quickly led to a bland side room, where a prim woman wearing a badge that said Tanya sat at a desk. Behind her, a poster declared that transactions would show up on card statements as PizzaMania.
“So, it’s the two of you together?” the woman said, looking up.
“Nope,” Nick said. “Separate.”
Tanya raised an eyebrow, glancing at her. “We only have women here.”
Her cheeks felt as though they were on fire. “I know.”
“OK.” A hint of sympathy. “First time?”
“…Is it obvious?”
“Well, I did see you stand outside for ten minutes.”
Nick tried to laugh. “Rookie error?”
Tanya smiled. “It’s common. Now, it’s £50 for half hour, unless you want longer?” They shook their heads. “OK. We’ll accept payment afterwards. Do not try to leave without paying, and do not attempt to hurt the girls.” Her expression didn’t change but Nick gulped. “I’ll check they’re ready.”
She walked outside and spoke to someone. Nick glanced at her.
“Want to back out?”
He smiled his nervous smile. “We’ve come this far.” A pause. “That was not intentional.”
“Not … oh. Nick!”
He laughed as she smacked his arm. “You love it really. Hey, is this a weird bonding activity for flatmates?”
Before he could respond, Tanya returned to lead them into the corridor, and up some stairs, before turning left, and knocking on the first door.
“This is Helene,” Tanya said, as a dark-skinned woman with curly black hair and hardly any clothes appeared. “She’ll attend to you, sir.”
Nick grinned. “Awesome.” He turned to her. “Guess I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah,” she said, throat dry. “See you.”
As he left, the woman knocked on the other door. A tall, blonde-haired woman with pointed features answered, smiling a wicked smile and-
“This is Emma,” Tanya said, oblivious to her wide eyes and gobsmacked expression. “I think you’ll find her to your satisfaction.”
“What?” She shook her head. “Oh. Yeah. I’m sure I will. Thanks.”
Tanya nodded. The woman stepped backwards into the room, and she followed. As the door shut behind her, she looked around. A thin red carpet covered the floor; bizarre flower-patterned wallpaper engulfed the walls. In the corner sat a king-sized bed, neatly made. A grungy sink stood nearby, hanging over an overflowing bin.
‘Emma’ coughed. Reluctantly, she turned.
“So,” ‘Emma’ said, voice a low purr, “are you coming to me, or should I come to you?”
Was ‘Emma’ really-
‘Emma’ seemed almost impatient now, her wicked smile covering something cold and hard. It made her shiver.
Maybe she was mistaken. It had been four years after all. Maybe she wanted to see-
Footsteps caught her attention: ‘Emma’ was sauntering towards her, hips sashaying in a provocative manner. “Come on, honey,” she whispered. “I’m so wet for you.”
It was hard to describe the feeling that hit her then – it was somewhere between horror and terror. She took a step backwards. “Uh, you know what?” she said. “I’ve just remembered I’m straight. I’ll go pay.”
‘Emma’ paused. Confusion flashed across her face. “Sorry?”
“I’m just so ridiculously straight. Um. Wow. What a feeling.”
“You … are you being funny?”
“No, no. I just, uh, wasn’t expecting-” Her breath caught: there was fear in ‘Emma’s’ eyes, and embarrassment, and her hand twitched in a stupidly familiar way. She heard herself say, “-to find the way of the Lord. With my complete straightness. Hail Jesus!”
There was a moment of awful silence. Then ‘Emma’ snorted. “Isn’t it ‘Hail Mary’?”
“Um, possibly. Maybe I should say ‘hail everyone’. Just to be sure.” She paused. “I’m not very good at this, am I?”
There was a smile fighting its way on to ‘Emma’s’ face. “At being straight, being Christian, or being with a prostitute, you mean?” Something softened in that sharp face. “Look. Did I scare you? I’m sorry, if so. We can start slower.”
But her hand twitched, and her foot scuffed the carpet.
“No, it’s OK,” she said. “This…” She sagged. “This was a bad idea.”
Quietly, ‘Emma’ padded towards her, and touched a hand to her shoulder. “Hey, it’s OK. It’s natural to feel awkward. I don’t kiss, but we could-”
“If it’s your first time-”
“It isn’t.” She paused, then half-heartedly crossed herself. “And I’m very repentant.”
Now a smile, slow, sweet, and amused, crossed that face and she had to look away. Just four years ago, she’d almost lived for that smile.
“Just out of interest,” ‘Emma’ said, oblivious to her realisation, “do you need both cover stories? The being straight one seemed effective.”
She tried to smile. “I’m committed now.”
Maybe ‘Emma’ didn’t recognise her. If so, she didn’t want to remind her. Not here, not now. This was embarrassing enough already.
“Of course,” ‘Emma’ said. “So, that’s not a virgin with men and women then?” She blushed. “Ah.”
“But I’m straight now.”
“I thought you were straight before?”
“Was I? Oh, yeah. I was. And very devout. Um.” She looked up. “Are other clients as awkward as me?”
‘Emma’ smirked. “Well, most of them invoke the Lord’s name, so you’re in the majority there.” She paused. “It’s usually after I’ve done something though.”
Despite everything, she laughed. ‘Emma’ laughed too, and for a second, they were sitting in the park, fifteen again, the world warm and bright as the future stretched ahead of them.
Her throat tightened.
“So, just so I’m clear,” ‘Emma’ said, expression still amused, “are you actually straight?”
She coughed, forcing herself to smile. “You doubting my religious awakening?”
“Not at all. But you did seem a little uncertain a minute ago.” She paused. “Er. Actually, maybe I’ve got this wrong. Do you … maybe identify as male?”
“Huh? Oh. No. I’d have to identify as gay if I’d gone with-” She closed her eyes. “No.”
To her surprise, a gentle arm settled around her shoulders and squeezed. “Come on,” ‘Emma’ said as she led her to the bed, and sat down with her. “What’s going on? You can tell me. I get clients who want to talk so I’m a pretty good listener.”
“I know,” she mumbled. ‘Emma’ flinched, very slightly. “Um. I mean, I’ve heard that, about clients. Expensive therapy session, huh? Maybe I should check your qualifications.”
She’d meant it as a joke, but ‘Emma’ flinched again. When she turned her head, she could see that fear and embarrassment, so she said, “It’s stupid, really. Just… A friend told me once that it wasn’t weird that I didn’t like kissing much. Not even with my boyfriend. She said loads of people didn’t like kissing, it would come with time, and it would get better. That the important thing was that I loved him. But...” She heard an inhalation of breath. “The first time I slept with him was the day a friend disappeared. I was a mess. I told myself that’s why I didn’t enjoy it, even if he did. But I ran out of excuses after that. It was so boring. I tried with other guys too. And…”
“Yeah. I never told anyone. I just faked it all. And being gay wasn’t an option, not where I’m from. But I got to university and-”
“You did?” There was delight in ‘Emma’s’ eyes, and she felt something in her warm. “That’s amazing. What do you study?”
“Um. Engineering. It’s how I met the guy who came here with me, Nick. No idea how I got in though. Nobody from home goes to uni.”
“Well, I’m not surprised,” ‘Emma’ said. “Not one bit.”
They looked at each other.
“You seem smart,” ‘Emma’ added hastily, looking away. “Anyway, sorry. You got to university?”
“Y-Yeah. Um. I still never really wanted sex or anything. So, then I tried dating women but I just … never. Felt like it. I thought maybe it was nerves, but I didn’t want to string them along, treat them like my experiment so…”
“You decided to test it with a prostitute?”
“Yup.” She blew out. “Before I found the Lord.”
“Are you still sticking to that?”
“And you are straight?”
She shrugged. “I … don’t know. Maybe I’m just incapable of love. Or maybe I’m broken.”
“That’s not true.” The fierceness in ‘Emma’s’ voice made her jump. “Did you love your boyfriend?”
“I dunno. When I was with him, I felt unstoppable. He made everything wonderful. I wanted to be a better person for him. But isn’t the whole point that I should want to sleep with him? And there was … I knew someone once. She made everything bright and warm and, and more. It’s what made me think maybe…” She shrugged. “I loved being with her. More than when I was with him. But I never thought about sleeping with her.”
‘Emma’s’ expression was hard to read. “You never told her?”
“She had a boyfriend.” She made herself keep her expression neutral. “And she was the one who was going to get out. She got the top grades. Had the stable relationship. Kept us out of trouble. And she was just a, a great person. She gave me the confidence to really try at school. She listened to me, made me feel I was worth something. Put me up when my mum was drunk. I couldn’t mess things up for her.” She sighed. “And then, one day, her dad had a black eye, her boyfriend hated her, and she was … gone.”
The arm slipped from her shoulders. For long seconds, neither spoke.
“Clients sleep with me all the time, and I’ve never loved any of them,” ‘Emma’ said quietly. “So, I don’t understand. Why couldn’t you love someone without wanting to sleep with them?”
She wasn’t looking at her. “People used to look up to me, you know. But it wasn’t me. Not really. My parents pushed me. Shouted at me for even the slightest misstep, hit me, made me dream of…” She shook her head. “I tried so hard to be the model daughter, pretended I was happy but I felt so, so brittle. Nobody saw that though: they saw someone perfect. But, one day, a girl came up to me, and asked if I was OK. She said I looked sad. She hugged me and gave me a flower, and I, I talked to her and … she listened. She always listened. She was like that. She was sweet and kind and, and awkward but she had this strength of soul that I envied. We never kissed but … I loved her, I think.”
Her heart hammered in her chest because- “What happened to her?”
“Nothing. It all fell apart. My boyfriend and I argued, I was failing Maths, a friend got done for drugs, and the police cautioned me. So, my dad hit me again.” She looked away. “It was too much. I snapped. Hit him back, ran away with as much cash as I could grab. Ended up here, in this job. I couldn’t go back after that. After everything I said, telling everyone we could get out, only to become a whore? I was meant to be the best, and I broke every promise I made to them.”
There was silence for long, awful seconds. ‘Emma’ wouldn’t look at her.
“You’ve done well though,” she said. ‘Emma’ looked back. “I mean, your charge-out rate is pretty impressive. Your customer relation skills are top-notch. And you do therapy on the side. Seems pretty good to me.”
‘Emma’ snorted and put her head in her hands. “Really? I suppose you think the violence and theft was justified too?”
“Well, you did say your dad hit you…” Her eyes widened. “Oh, God, that-”
“It wasn’t, like, every day or anything,” ‘Emma’ said quickly. Before she could respond, she added, “Isn’t violence unchristian?”
“They started it!”
“I don’t think that’s an excuse in the Bible.”
“Look, I found the Lord very recently. I can’t be expected to know the Bible already.”
‘Emma’ laughed “Fair enough.”
“No,” ‘Emma’ said. “I just meant to prove … look. This Nick guy – you like him?”
“N-Not like that. We’re just friends. He’s the only one who knows … about me.”
“He said I’m fine as well.”
“Then why question it?”
She closed her eyes. “You don’t think it’s weird that I was more interested in the interior decorating than you? The wallpaper sucks, by the way.”
‘Emma’ snorted. “I know. Be glad you don’t have to stare at it while fake moaning. But if you’re happy and not hurting anyone, what does it matter what you do in bed? How does it make you broken?”
“It’s not normal.”
She looked at ‘Emma’ then. ‘Emma’ looked back, her expression achingly and reassuringly familiar in its fierceness and compassion.
“You know,” she said slowly, “I bet that girl wouldn’t think badly of you. She sounded cool.” She hesitated. “And funny. And smart.”
‘Emma’s’ lips quirked. “Modest, too. But she deserves better. Someone at her level, who’ll treat her well, and always be there for her. Not a whore who didn’t even try to contact her. Plus, I hear she’s very devout. And possibly straight.”
“Well, wasn’t Jesus’ girlfriend a prostitute?”
“That’s a myth.”
“Really? Huh. Never mind then. But I think you’re being too hard on yourself. You’re kind, and sweet, and smart too. I think she’d forgive you. I think she’d want to know you again, if she could.”
‘Emma’ looked at her then. “Why,” she said softly, “do you think you’re so broken, when your heart is so big?”
She blushed. Before she could answer, however, someone knocked at the door, indicating that time was up. They looked at each other.
“I, I guess I’d better go,” she said. “Thank you. This was, it was nice.”
‘Emma’ looked pained. “You’re welcome. I’m sorry for scaring you. And changing your sexuality. And religion.” She paused. “When I put it like that, I did a really bad job.”
She laughed. “I won’t leave a bad review.”
‘Emma’ laughed too. They looked at each other.
“D’you … really think we could start again? Me and that girl?”
“Yes.” She hesitated. “Abby, you know I-”
“No. Not here. Please. I, I want Ellie to see me. Not … me.”
“OK,” said Ellie softly. “But it won’t matter to her, you know.”
An arm slipped around her, pulling her into a hug. “I know,” Abby said. “I’ve always envied her her heart.”
Afterwards, Nick said, “What the hell? How good were you?”
She finished typing the number into her phone. “Not very. It’s … a long story.”
“Alright. But at least tell me it worked? D’you feel, I dunno, different?”
“I … don’t know.”
“Still feel broken?”
“I just… I know other people feel sexual attraction. So, why don’t I?”
He shrugged. “Other people find men hot. Why don’t I? Sometimes, you just don’t.”
“It’s that simple?”
“Yeah.” He ruffled her hair. “Look, did you like that woman?”
“I loved her.”
“OK, wow. That’s a more intense outcome than I was expecting.”
“I mean, I... Never mind.”
“No, it’s good. Weird, but good. If you love her, what’s the problem?”
“Won’t she want more from me?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. You did get her number.”
She thought of Abby, her fierceness, her protectiveness. “I guess I did. I guess maybe we could … be something.”
“Exactly. You’ve just got to have faith. And I get dibs on telling this story if you get married.”
“I thought we were never telling anyone about this?”
“Oh, well, we have to now. It’s a love story.”
“Yeah. But if anyone asks-”
“You waited in reception for me, like your mum?”
She laughed, feeling weirdly light for the first time.
“Alright,” she said. “Deal.”