Stephen Elliot asked, Does anyone have any questions
about sex work or are you thinking about doing sex work?
There was a bit of uncomfortable laughter and for a moment
I nearly raised my hand but had a shy attack like I would when I was in the seventh grade and a kid of any gender that I thought was cute would sit next to me or offer to share a coke or packet of Vanilla Swiss cookies that they sold in the school cafeteria.
So instead of raising my hand I just sat there in the darkened bar and leaned back on the velvet banquette and wondered, Do I have any questions about sex work?
Am I thinking of doing sex work?
My attention hovered in those questions as the reading started and then I sat leaning on that velvet banquette with my eyes half closed listening to five or maybe it was six writers reading pretty amazing stuff for a Wednesday night in NoHo
(what was I doing in L.A. anyway, hadn’t I vowed to leave this city of fallen angels forever behind in the ruins of childhood misery built on a foundation of all the unsold screenplays that could thwart a life)
and then midway through the reading (midway through my life? Where was my Virgil in this darkened bar?) I found myself falling fast for an ex-dominatrix current writer who read like a dream if that dream were for real and it was a dream and it was for real and so I was swept along in her for-real-dream and rode the waves of it and lost myself in the story of it up to the point where the for-real-dream-story climaxes and converges and then ties up nicely before the final unravelment … (is it my life unraveling?)
Denouement is such a cool word, but I wasn’t thinking that then because I was so blown away that I forgot myself for a moment and was totally one hundred percent in her story as the words swallowed up that velvet banquette I was sitting on and the bar and all the other signposts too that pointed
to a concrete world.
But then one thought rushed in interrupting the reverie
and I said nearly aloud maybe there is still time to raise my hand.
Yes Stephen Elliot I do have a question about sex work
and as a matter of fact I am considering doing sex work.
The candles in the bar were casting light on the industrial grey walls
and I was thinking about cave paintings and lit up caves
and what it would have been like to be swathed in mastodon fur in a cave of prehistory and sit around a fire telling stories in whatever grunts language was then or were there no grunts and just stories told through etchings on
the stone walls after a day of hunting and gathering without words to confuse the matter—pure story in pure image—if images can be said to be more pure than words
and I was also wondering what it was that could be trusted in the sun rising and setting and what was that ice white orb in the dark sky that changed its form like magic and seemed to follow me everywhere. That is the me that was sitting in the cave in prehistory having prehistoric thoughts and was wondering that and it felt so warm to be covered in mastodon fur, a warmth that I could not explain or believe.
What would it have been like to do sex work in a cave?
And suddenly the bar itself became that cave and I felt the mastodon fur gather me up in a kind of comfort that was so warm so close and could hear all around me the grunts of language that were grunting out a story—a for-real dream—and I could see a distant relative of mine of yours of all of ours start to etch the story of the hunt and the brave mastodon who would be felled (it was inevitable) but also this mastodon would be remembered throughout time up till this moment when he is alive his fur matted down and he is sitting there with me listening with me in equal amazement to the ex-dominatrix current writer speaking with love about her past career.
I was paid to be a bitch
she said and I thought, I could do that.
And the mastodon nodded his head.
You could so do that. You have potential, the mastodon said.
Yeah and need. Potential and need. I’ve got only ten bucks to my name
and have to spend 1.75 on the fucking Orange Line and do you know where the Orange Line goes? Back to my childhood on Victory Blvd. that’s where it goes.
What does that leave at the age of 53?
When I turned 53 a few weeks ago I thought
this wasn’t what I had planned for my life, to be riding the Orange and Red Lines in L.A.
Fuck the Orange Line, though later instead of fucking it I rode it, if there can be said to be a difference and then a few nights later than this night where the ex-dominatrix read from her book, and Stephen Elliot asked about sex work,
I was in Los Feliz at another literary reading (see there is literature in L.A.) and on my way to a third further downtown and so walking back on the moonlit street on the way to the metro from one reading to another I checked my phone and it was a call from a man with whom I have had a thirty-year romantic friendship.
I keep meaning to go back to women—why all these men—but men keep pulling me back like Russia is pulling me back (where I lived for over two decades before coming back to L.A.) and L.A. is pulling me back and the ocean is pulling me back and I will be pulled back until I am a child in my mother’s arms at the shore of the Pacific and back further than that to some past life in some other mother’s arms—all the way back to the mastodon fur back to that indescribable warmth.
So I stood on a corner in Los Feliz Village where Bukowski lived
and there are murals in his memory and I was standing right in front of one of those murals having this conversation with the friend of thirty years—a conversation about our relationship in general and about boundaries
and what are the boundaries in our relationship and we have been asking that to each other for thirty years and it is possible in another life on another day we probably sat in that cave back in the day the mastodon day and still there we were talking about boundaries in the grunts of early language as someone etched the story of the hunt on the stone walls with the fire warmly burning.
And then the conversation ended in a friendly way with nothing at all resembling resolution and I made it to the last moments of the second reading further downtown and over a glass of rosé and warm conversation in English and Spanish I was introduced by Ramon Garcia as another one just like us in culture shock who has just spent twenty years in Russia. I felt the shock of culture meet the shock of rosé and it was another kind of warmth not as comforting as mastodon fur
and I carried that warmth with me back to the Red Line and sat on the train reading poems from the books I had bought from both readings by dipping into the nearly nonexistent rent money: Eileen Myles I Must Be Living Twice and Ramon Garcia’s The Chronicles although as I type this I remember Ramon gave me the book as a gift. And then it is 2 a.m. and I am on the Orange Line and there is a lizard man staring at me and I feel like I am in an early episode of The Walking Dead and begin to think I should have called a taxi for the rest of the way home and would have called that taxi if I had had the bucks to do so but I didn’t and so now I wonder if I might die on the Orange Line tonight and then I get off at my lonely stop
and the lizard man begins to follow me home
and I run in a way I haven’t run for years
and come home and can’t catch my breath
so text my friend Thom and then he calls me and I tell him
in speech patterns so breathless that he tells me slow down but I can’t so I continue to tell him in a breathless rush all about the night and the last few nights and when I get to the part about the conversation with my friend of thirty years as I stood in front of the Bukowski mural Thom says, You know, there you are having a conversation about boundaries in front of the most boundary-less writer who has ever lived.
Do I need to mention that this is a kind of irony? No Thom you don’t. You truly truly don’t.
And we laugh and my breath eases and the irony helps in a way that a stiff drink would and I am happy that Thom has pointed out an irony to me tonight. I am indeed starting to catch my breath and the lizard man fades a bit from the foreground of my thought as our conversation drifts to Ramon introducing me as someone with culture shock and Thom says, Yes that describes you to a T and as I hang up from Thom I think, It is a T. I am like just off the boat and am coming full circle from twenty years in Russia which was a twenty-year escape from L.A. Now here I am back from the old country to the new which was old to me as childhood places are. But the new world of old is transformed into something different:
My parents are dead and L.A. has a metro.
Did you hear that mosquitos carrying dengue fever have come here from Asia in a shipment of bamboo? They’ve been spotted in Silverlake.
They have come all the way to this land at the edge of the world up against the wall of the ancient Pacific. And here I am as well back to the land at the edge of the world up against the wall of the ancient Pacific. The land is in drought in perpetual heatwave. We are waiting in vain for it to rain. Do you hear that Comrade Mosquito?
Up against the wall of the ancient Pacific. Up against the wall motherfuckers, up against the void. No rain in sight and up against the void that is formed by a sort of L.A. Bermuda Triangle composed of the fog coming in off the ocean and of the dolphins swimming so close to shore and of the Hollywood sign that might be haunted by the woman who jumped to her death from it
sometime in the ’50s was it? Yeah, this must be that triangle’s apex. What was her name?
Why did she do it? Now I can’t do it in that same way. It wouldn’t have the same effect. It can only have elegance once. And if we are posing questions then why didn’t I do sex work when I could when my body was young
and hadn’t gone through major surgeries
and when I still had the energy for it?
But then I thought hmmm maybe that could be a selling point?
Maybe the scars would be worth something in a kind of niche market?
And my misshapen abdomen too—how much more could I make for that?
Hey you were cut open again,
one friend said to me after my third operation. They cut you right down
And in that moment when she said it I felt cut open again, I felt cut open, but then I thought:
Cut open for the good.
Cut open to live another day.
Cut open to have another chance to fuck things up
way more than they had been fucked up before.
And so why not?
Why can’t I be a sex worker now
at age 53 with a misshapen fucked up abdomen
and ten dollars to my name
and a broken car that I am afraid of driving,
driving off a canyon into that space where the fog meets up
with the Hollywood sign, a space that you could call divine.
And on a particular kind of night when the wind stirs (those Santa Anas)
you can hear the cries of the woman who jumped.
She haunts the air in the Hollywood Hills
and on a smog-less night
her voice has been said to reach across
to the San Fernando Valley.
What was her name?
Can anyone remember?
I can google it
but then I would have to stop typing
and if I stop typing right now
the world might stop typing, too.
It might stop short
like my father stopping short in heavy L.A. traffic
and saying you know driving is getting a little too much for me
but I do it he said
I keep driving.
There are places I still want to go.
And I say there are places I still want to go.
And I need money to get to those places.
And sex work well it would give me that money.
And I could be kind and maybe someone would remember how kind I was to him or her on some lost afternoon of twisted sheets and two-hundred bucks
left on the proverbial dresser, isn’t that where they always leave it?
I don’t know where they really leave it. I don’t know much of anything.
I’m kind of lost these days.
And lost in thought as well.
I invoke my friend Danny who died in 2008.
This would be a conversation I would love to have with him.
Danny what do you think? Is there a future for me in this sex work idea?
Does this have potential?
Do you think I am on the right track, finally?
And he would shake his head
and pronounce my entire name in a way that seemed to point to
sex work. Resa Al-bo-whore, sex work could be in your ancestral memory, Danny would say helpfully.
And I thought about my name and the way that Danny pronounced it but I am sure that isn’t what the rabbi said my last name meant on that afternoon I got married on a November day the weather with hints of global warming was in the ’70s the beech trees flaming red and gold and I thought in that moment I have to write that down.
I have to remember what the rabbi said my last name means.
But I didn’t write it down and now am left with the trace of the memory. It didn’t mean whore I am sure of that though I can’t reconstruct what the rabbi said the name did mean. Still I am sure of what it didn’t.
And yet sitting in the bar I felt that being a whore wouldn’t be so bad.
That all the other work I was doing for money was feeling kind of whorish anyway and so would working a barista job feel too if I could figure out how to foam the milk and make the expert designs in the crema that make the whole coffee drinking experience complete, what wasn’t whorish in our market economy?
And my thoughts drifted some more and would have drifted forever but then they found their way back into the ex-dominatrix’s story as it was winding down and the ex-dominatrix suddenly became full dominatrix again as she stood there aflame like those beech trees and dominated the room with some kind of source of inner light. And I thought of all those johns from all those years that she was paid to be a bitch. And imagined them forming a bridge that led from the candlelit bar into somewhere indescribable and I would walk across that bridge on her voice and on this story to a place where I would find my own Virgil who would be waiting to take my hand and guide me for to tell you the truth:
I have been too long in this hell without a guide.
And as I was imagining this bridge that led to my Virgil, the dominatrix had a different take on this long line of johns reaching to infinity:
In every place I ever worked I would find something in at least one of those johns to love,
she said or words to that effect and then just stood there shining
as the cave was becoming a bar again. The mastodon who had been listening to every word better than I had done and had been nodding his elephantine head was now fading into the candlelit grey walls and the ex-dominatrix stood there for a moment, so powerful, and maybe even more powerful than any time in her past career when she had wielded a whip with expert talent and flashes of love and she stood there allowing the applause from the audience
to fall upon her gently like that rain that L.A. has been hoping for
for so long now, and essentially, in this moment at least,
you could say the drought had ended.
for Shawna Kenney, who gave me her book … and yes, I promise to “Whip the words good!”
Resa Alboher: “I was born at Kaiser Sunset in 1962. Grew up first on Graves Ave., then on Victory Blvd. in Van Nuys to a dedicated L.A. Unified High School English teacher father (Grant High for most of his nearly 50-year career) and what was at that time called (but on the wane) executive secretary mother (both parents transplants from Brooklyn and the Midwest by ancestral way of Russia and Macadonia) in an apartment filled with books. My road took me on a line east to New York then St. Petersburg, Russia, then Moscow, with many trips back and forth through the years to Victory Blvd. And then with my parents both gone after my Russian expat life collapsed spectacularly, I am back in the now rent-controlled apartment in L.A. This poem, while using elements of fiction, also has something of the heart of truth to it. It is good to be writing in L.A. in my apartment filled with the loving energy of my parents, wherever they are now …”
This week’s Rattlecast features 2008 Rattle Poetry Prize winner Joseph Fasano, plus open lines. Fasano is the author of four books of poetry and a recent novel, and is founder of the Poem for You series, a digital space offering recitations of listeners’ favorite poems by request. Tanner Stening also joins us to discuss the Overview Effect on Poets Respond Live.
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