A question for today's modern parent: What would it take, how desperate would you have to be, to consider prostituting yourself for the sake of your family?
Before I had children, I'd have said never. But children change things, as Lifetime TV makes crystal clear in their probing, popular new TV series The Client List, a show about a mom recalibrating her moral compass to keep her fatherless family in high-quality kitchen appliances. It stars a deeply cleavaged, adorably conflicted Jennifer Love Hewitt. Don't think I mention J-Love's cleavage gratuitously; as any viewer can tell you, it's integral to every storyline. So integral, in fact, that some weeks it gets its own subplot.
If you doubt the importance of Jen's assets to the stories being told, I submit the first sentence of the New York Times review: "The Client List is being advertised with billboards on which each of Jennifer Love Hewitt's breasts appears to be the size of a studio apartment." (That sentence alone almost got me to fork over $35 a month for an online subscription, until my son spotted me pulling out my credit card and snatched it, throwing on his fake sad face and reminding me how many Go-Gurts that could buy.)
Here's The Client List in a nutshell: J-Love plays a woman named Riley Parks. Because Jennifer and Riley look uncannily alike, I call her Ri-Love. After her husband disappears without paying the mortgage, Ri-Love is forced to keep her family afloat financially. When her search for cartography and quilting jobs turns up nothing but dead ends, our heroine naturally takes the only other career path left open to her: She becomes a masseuse at a fancy Texas day spa called The Rub (you can't make this stuff up... oh, somebody did).
If this were the real world, Ri-Love's clients would mostly be bloated housewives with receding gums who say "ow!" a lot. But this being unreality television, coupled with the fact that Lifetime needs to recoup its investment on the Love Hewitt breasticles (a friend's son invented that word, while eating Go-Gurts), most weeks her clients are men. Again, not the sort of real-life Texans who might actually seek out a day-spa masseuse (flatulent Karl Rove types with crippling hernias). No. Most weeks, Ri-Love's table is stuffed with cut, hunky Abercrombie & Fitch alumni who would never in their bronze-nippled, twelve-packed lives have to pay a woman to massage them.
But you see where this is heading. Very quickly, Ri-Love learns that the other girls seem to be pocketing a lot more in tips than she is. So naturally, she starts asking questions, at which point one of the girls tells Ri-Love that if she ever hopes to replace her noisy Maytag with that fancy Bosch dishwasher her kids have had their eye on, she's going to have to knead more than trapezius muscles. So Ri-Love bites her lip, buys a jug of hand sanitizer, and gets to work.
Get any parent drunk enough and they'll admit that sometimes, the scruples/practicality balance has to get shifted around some. Still, at the end of the day, we love Jennifer, because, A) she was once a Disney kid, and B) technically, Ri-Love's not selling her whole body, just her dominant hand.
Which I could never do. I know this because of something that happened one night on a trip to New York City back in the '90s, a time of crossroads for so many of us.
I was single then. The television series I'd been writing for had just wrapped, so I had pockets full of cash and plenty of time on my hands. It was my first night of a two-week vacation, and my flight had arrived too late for me to catch a Broadway show. So, after checking into my hotel, I headed to the Upper East Side to catch a 9 p.m. movie.
As the audience streamed onto the sidewalk after it let out, I noticed a very attractive, I mean unusually attractive, young guy in front of me. Picture a pre-James Franco James Franco. Tall, dirty blond, wearing jeans, a white T-shirt, and a leather jacket. Sizzling. He emerged from the multiplex before I did, setting off in the same direction I was, maybe 15 paces ahead.
Then it happened. He turned back and smiled. At me. Not once, but twice, then three times over the course of a couple of blocks.
And why not? I was handsome. (Ask my mother.) And, like I said, single, flush, and fancy-free. Still, this sort of thing never happened to me. It happened in movies. It happened in books. It happened all the time in ads for products with names like Summer's Eve and Femfresh. But never to me. Mesmerized, I found myself following him, until he smiled over his shoulder one last time and ducked into a bar.
I stopped myself. Anyone who knows me will assure you that I have a hipness quotient of zero. Even old-maid English teachers who wear orthopedic Hush Puppies as a fashion statement find themselves disgusted by my lack of cool. Her name was Miss Shealy. (Please don't give me flack for calling her an old-maid schoolteacher; that's how she referred to herself, proudly, just as she proudly mowed her own lawn.) One day, having had about as much as she could take of my tendency to over-enthuse, she approached me in the hall as I was talking with friends and suggested that I "tone it down."
"Tone what down?" I asked, baffled.
"Everything," she said. "Whenever I see you, Bill Walker..." -- she paused, grasping for the right words -- "...you always tend to look like someone just ran up behind you and shouted, 'Boo!'"
I can't help it. I'm overeager -- always have been. I lack that gene that warns other people to hold back, take a moment, and survey the situation before diving in, which is why I've spent a lifetime cannonballing into swimming pools that have just been drained for cleaning.
Not tonight. Being on vacation affords the opportunity to try out new selves. Who's to know? Tonight I was determined to rein in the impulses that, on any other night, would have had me crashing through the door and sniffing out every corner of the bar until I'd found Smiling Guy, like some truffle pig in a cheerleader uniform.
Tonight, I was going to play it cool. Slow things down. It was a struggle, but instead of immediately following him into the bar, I found a phone booth and called L.A. to check my messages. Nothing major, just a few sales calls and my mom saying something about a relative slipping into a coma.
When I realized that not enough time had passed, I walked around the block, practicing my pout. Only then, after an agonizing 10 minutes, did I enter the bar.
The place was dark, lit only by the glow of two television screens over the bar and some deftly placed track lighting. It was crowded, so I took a seat at the bar, glancing casually around to see if I could spot him. I couldn't.
The drinks were very expensive, even for the Upper East Side, so I ordered a cranberry and soda that still cost more than my wallet. As my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, I noticed that the decor was very upscale: dark, burnished wood, lots of mirrors, gleaming chrome, and thick, lush plants that looked like they'd been bottle-fed Evian by a Hungarian nanny. This was no dive, which I took to be a good sign. To hang out here, Smiling Guy must have a good job, which would mean going Dutch on dates, always a good idea at the beginning of a vacation fling. Which I knew nothing about.
And then I spotted him. Only Smiling Guy was no longer smiling. He was sitting all alone, smoking at a tall bar table about 10 feet away. I imagined him to be calculating his missteps, replaying scenarios of what he'd done wrong, why I hadn't showed. But I had, so he could relax. I sauntered over, counting down the seconds until I'd see that smile again.
"Hey," I said.
He nodded impassively, like he'd never seen me before.
"I finally got here," I said over the music. Nothing.
He was staring off into the distance, like someone who's farsighted and forgot his glasses. Then I got it. Oh, he's pissed I took so long getting in here and made him wait. He's so good-looking he's probably not used to waiting. I can smooth this over. Which I started to do, until I remembered that smooth is not an arrow that came with my quiver. That brought me back to my original thought. Maybe he's not focusing on me because he can't. Maybe he is farsighted and forgot his glasses. At that point I took a step backward, crashing into a barback carrying a large tray of empties.
After I'd helped him clean up the broken glass and offered to pay for the damage, I turned back to Smiling Guy, who was now not-smiling even more severely.
"I had to make a phone call before," I said, trying to recover. "Out there. On the sidewalk. My mom's uncle. He slipped into a coma."
"That's what old people do," he said distractedly. "They slip on stuff."
It was a strange joke, both lame and kind of sick at the same time, but he was trying, so I laughed.
And that's all it took. Finally, his face broke into that charming, familiar smile, and the sun was out. So he had a strange sense of humor. He also had great teeth. And they were smiling. At me.
Only they weren't.
They were smiling past me, toward the men's room. I turned to see a dumpy-looking guy in his 60s ambling our way. My first impression was that he was a dead ringer for the Kaiser dentist who'd botched my wisdom tooth extraction, which triggered an immediate impulse to flee. But I didn't. Instead, I tried for a genial smile as he hoisted himself up onto the stool I was about to sit on and said in a thin Midwestern accent, "Sorry that took so long. Takes me forever to pee. I'm on a new medication."
I waited to be introduced, imagining this guy to be my guy's elderly neighbor, or maybe an uncle, in town for a convention. But nothing. I was starting to feel like a third nipple. Then, finally, Smiling Guy pulled me close, looked me dead in the eye, and, with the skill and tact of a Vegas ventriloquist, hissed through his perfect, unmoving teeth, "Later, dude. I'm booked."
Suddenly, my pupils adjusted to the size of quarters, and I could see in the dark, as clearly as if someone had flipped on a bank of fluorescent overheads. The clientele in this particular establishment broke down into two distinct categories: unusually good-looking, buff young hotties and the much older quack dentists who were buying them drinks -- which I now realized were nonrefundable security deposits.
Miss Shealy might as well have charged me in her orthopedic Hush Puppies, screaming, "Boo! You just cannonballed into a hustler bar!" Then moseyed on over to the bar, grabbed a fistful of rump roast, and ordered a tall one. Because face it: How often do old-maid English teachers get to abandon their lawn mowers in favor of an upscale New York hustler establishment?
As for me, I was mortified, sweat-drenched, and all set to hightail it out of there. Now, before some old dude who looked like my cat's vet got the wrong idea and tried to swipe a credit card down my ass crack as a down payment on God knows what.
Then something strange happened -- okay, on top of all the other strange. Suddenly, the intergenerational chit-chat had ground to a halt all around me, and I noticed all the not-neighbors/nobody's-uncle were staring in my direction.
I started to panic. "Stop looking at me! Go back to your sex talk! I'm not for sale!" I almost shouted. Until I realized that they were all staring over me, at one of the TV screens. "Oh, my god," blurted the quack dentist with the iffy bladder. "Jackie..."
I turned to see what he was staring at, what they were all staring at.
Over a network banner blaring "BREAKING NEWS" rose the image of an instantly recognizable face and two lines of text:
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis
In what was as close to a come-to-Jesus moment as I've seen since my teenage holy-roller days, "clients" spontaneously began leaving their seats and moving closer to the bar as their clueless rent boys looked at each other, mouthing, "Who the hell is she?"
Some of the men had tears in their eyes as the images of a remarkable life began flashing across the screen: Jackie at the inauguration; Jackie on the White House lawn with her kids; Jackie in Dallas, shell-shocked in her blood-stained suit; Jackie's surprise wedding to the Greek billionaire.
"I've never called her Jackie Onassis," said one of the men, echoing the sentiment of every woman in my mother's South Carolina bridge club. "I refuse. She'll always be Jackie Kennedy to me." At that point another of the men asked no one in particular, "Wasn't there a drink named after her?" One of the bartenders looked it up. There was. It was called the Jackie-O, and before long the bar was cluttered with the pink-orange champagne and vodka cocktails. I was reaching for my wallet to pay for mine when a handsome older gentleman put his hand on my shoulder and said to the bartender, "It's on me."
Oh God. "That's OK," I stammered. "I've got it. Let me buy you one." But he insisted. Anxious to make clear that I wasn't some cocktail he could order out of a book, all I could do was sputter. "I'm not... I mean, I just came in here to..."
"You just came in here to what?" he smiled. "You're not... what?"
Finally I found the word: "Selling. I'm not... selling."
He just looked at me for a minute, then back at the TV screen.
"You remember, don't you?" he said.
"Remember what?" I asked.
"All of it. Her."
I did remember. I was in the second grade when the assassination happened, making Jackie Kennedy a widow a thousand times over on our TV screens. But no one had seen the TV images yet. The younger kids like me had been sent home early from school with no explanation. I pedaled fast on my bike, confused and wondering what was going on and why the teachers were crying. But there was no one home when I got there.
So I listened to the news pouring from the red radio that sat on the counter near our back door and just got more confused. In the days that followed, I remember feeling truly scared for the first time in my life, because the grownups were scared. All of them. Which was terrifying.
"Yeah, I remember. I thought she was a queen."
"Of course you did," he smiled. "We all did. And for you and me and half the gentlemen in here, she always will be. As for the rest of these boys... she'll never be more than a cocktail."
Suddenly, he was the most interesting man in the room.
"That's why I'm getting your drink," he went on. "Because you remember. Not because I thought you were..." -- he paused, amused -- "...'selling.' Not to burst your bubble; you're cute, but nobody in this bar thinks you're here because you're selling."
Most people can't tell you the date they realized they'll never be young again. For me it was May 14, 1994, the night that Jackie Kennedy died, in a hustler bar.
Allow me to rephrase. Jackie Kennedy died at home, surrounded by loving friends and family. I died in a hustler bar.
Needless to say, this is a story I've never shared with my children, and never will -- until later this week, when one of their friends shows them this column and I have to start answering questions.
Even so, it's a story they know the ending to. My 11-year-old daughter erased all doubt when she recently forgot to knock on my door and ended up permanently damaging her retinas after stumbling onto my rear view as I was changing out of my underwear.
At which point she buried her face in a basket of laundry and spat out this cultured pearl: "Daddy, please! Don't ever make me see that again! Your papayas are so past their expiration date."
I'm happy Ri-Love still has what it takes. Long may she knead. Her kids need a quality dishwasher with an ultra-quiet cycle and no visible buttons. I just hope their mom has enough left over for a comprehensive medical plan that doesn't exclude carpal tunnel syndrome.
Mine does, and for that reason alone I could never make the brave choice that Ri-Love makes each week, or, given my expired papayas, the even more noble choice of full-service professionals, who on a daily basis must sacrifice not only their hand but everything that's attached to it.
I don't judge these civil servants. I just know that I could never sell my body. Because if it ever came to that, we'd starve. It's a fact I came to terms with the night I learned that one of our former First Ladies died, in a hustler bar.
A First Lady, I recall, whom I'd once had to defend against some pretty nasty charges made by Barbara Acheson, a woman in my mother's bridge club. When Jackie, then a young widow, suddenly remarried a rich Greek guy 28 years older than she was, a lot of women in America went a little nuts. Mrs. Acheson called her some ugly names, accusing Jackie of selling her youth and beauty, not to mention her good name, to a short, ugly rich dude for some quick cash.
But being a child at the time, I knew what was going on. Her kids needed a dishwasher.
* * * * *
This post is the ninth in a series of Spilled Milk columns by William Lucas Walker chronicling his misadventures in Daddyland.
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