I never exactly quit phone sex. I didn’t hand in my two weeks’ notice, I didn’t even tell my boss I was quitting. I just sort of gradually stopped having my lines on for as long as I once did. I barely had my lines on for the minimum thirty hours one week, the next week I made less than thirty, and by the second week I didn’t turn them on at all. I was letting things lapse right and left. I stayed in bed for days, getting up only to refresh the contents of my teacup. Were I to have had the energy, I might have spent my days making friends with Messrs. Daniels and Jameson, but I couldn’t even stand the stupor of alcohol. I spent days sleeping fitfully and trying to read, but I couldn’t keep my attention on a page.

I left the house once or twice a week; even a trip to the grocery store was a Herculean labor that required a lengthy nap afterwards. Phone sex had crippled me but the lack of any real work was threatening to kill me.

Besides that, Stanley and I didn’t really have the money to survive off a single income. Too surly and taciturn to succeed in interviews, and not experienced enough to get by on only a flashy resume, Stanley did very little but sit at home playing endless rounds of Call of Duty, smoking cigarette after cigarette, drinking Coca Cola, eating junk food, and collecting unemployment. I suppose there must have been something I saw in him, but today I’m at an utter loss as to what exactly that might have been. I’m also sure his complete lack of appreciation for my tireless efforts to make the ends of each check meet must have contributed to my exhaustion and eventual inability to continue exerting the effort.

No, things weren’t going so well for me.

(photo via NYDN)

I pined after Paradox, the easy money, the solidarity of the dressing room, the in-jokes, the way we all flirted shamelessly with the ugly little delivery guy from the greasy spoon across the street just to watch his eyes fall onto the floor, the smoke-clouded dressing room, Patti’s stories about her family and the customers’ behavior at the window, even the Dirty Masturbator. I wanted nothing more than to go back and get away, far away from the dolor and ennui of my awful existence. I’ve never seriously considered suicide; though I’ve fallen into abysses of bleakness and entertained the idea of ending it all, there’s never been much conviction behind my ideation.

Were I to have offed myself at any time, however, I would have done it then. But I couldn’t summon the energy even to jump in front of an oncoming el train.

Still. I couldn’t allow myself to wallow for long. My income was the difference between soul-crushing poverty and at least a semblance of comfort. I knew perfectly well that we’d never be truly comfortable: Stanley found ways of going through money that boggled even my vintage clothing-obsessed mind, but even paying rent on time can be worth a lot when you’re that broke.

I took up webcam modeling, assuming it would be like working at Paradox, just without the commute. It might, I thought, be even more lucrative. After all, while Paradox relied on men who came in off the street, the men who would be jerking off to me online were from all over the world.

So I scanned my ID and sent in my paperwork and became a camgirl. I think it was during my two weeks of camming that I began to suspect something was wrong in my relationship with Stanley. I couldn’t say it, not even to myself, but somewhere in my head I knew.

I hated that job. I set up my equipment in our bed and tried to convince horny men to buy shows with me. The sounds of Stanley’s video games drifted through the curtain. I couldn’t relax, afraid he might mistake my professional flirting for genuine interest, and because I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t sell a show to save my life. It didn’t help that other girls had various dildos and toys to use in their shows and I was terrified to even broach the topic lest it cause a rage and further upend my already-volatile relationship.

I felt exploited. I wasn’t enslaved, I could, in theory, stop whenever I wanted, but stop and do what? I would complain every night as I pinned on my wig and painted my face.

“I don’t want to go online, I don’t want to deal with the assholes, this sucks.”

I hoped Stanley would say, “so don’t” but he never did. Instead it was, “We need the money,” or “Well, I’m almost out of cigarettes.”

The doubts nagged at me. Here I was, arching my back, spreading my legs, and what did I have to show for it? Most of my checks went to things for him, but I was the one dealing with the bullshit. And so I quit camming, took up figure modeling, and started looking for bartending jobs.

Often when I tell people I was a stripper or a whore they tell me they’re sorry I had to go through that, it must have been awful. No-one ever says they’re sorry I had to work as a bartender, yet I found the service industry to be much more degrading than any of my previous naked labor. Even phone sex and camming were a walk in the park compared to serving drinks to entitled assholes who share their tipping philosophy with Mr. Pink.

I quit bartending too, throwing myself into figure modeling and further ruining my already scoliosis-ridden back. I was still miserable, but at least on the model stand I could be serene and quiet, I could absent myself from the awful dramas of my life and simply be.

The people were wonderful, too. They talked to me about books, about my interests, about clothes and art and my pet rabbits, everything but the video games and conspiracy theories that had slowly taken over Stanley’s conversation. I started to remember what it was to be admired not just for what I looked like, but for my thoughts and abilities. The people I modeled for didn’t just say “you’re beautiful” they said, “you’re such a great model, your sense of space and angle is amazing.”

The first stirrings of resentment began to build through my awful, awful fog. The only compliment I ever got from Stanley was ‘sexypants’ and while it was cute at first the fact that all he seemed to care for was my looks began to grate on me. I have a mind, goddamnit, and a better mind than I do a face or rack or ass. By winter, my resentment had become a full-blown outrage, as I realized I was completely trapped.

I had an income, yes, but it was nothing I could live on. By that time Stanley was working and I relied on him for everything from the roof over my head to the clothes on my back. The thought occurred to me that I could save my money bit by bit and gradually get enough to leave and live on my own for a while. But that was no sure thing, particularly since I was still giving most of my earnings to Stanley one way or another. I needed a way out, and fast.

Various possibilities occurred to me: I could become a whore again, there would be ways to conceal my activities, I was sure. I could go back to camming, who cared how bad it was? This time I wouldn’t let my fear of retribution get in the way of my job, I didn’t care anymore, he could get as angry as he liked at whatever I did. But I’m a poor liar and I dislike dishonesty almost as much as I disliked camming, so I perused Craigslist for bartending jobs.

Finally I found one and oh, what a job it was. I would be the bartender for a major strip club. I could put some of my experience on my resume! I got an interview right away.

I’m not sure if the bartending job was ever really available. As soon as I got to the club, the woman in charge of personnel asked me if I was sure I didn’t want to dance. They always needed more girls, she said. The DJ was playing “The Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson, the song which, lame as it was, I used to love angry-dancing to at Paradox when customers irritated me.

I hesitated for a moment. Saying yes would mean I’d have to lie when I got home and I didn’t relish the prospect at all, but on the other hand stripping–even if it meant lying too–would give me the out I needed much faster than almost anything else. I interviewed for the bartending position, but filled out a dancer application as well. The personnel woman told me to stand in front of a white wall and strip to my bra and underwear. I faced forward and to the side while she took photographs and then informed me that I had bartending orientation the next Thursday but could change my mind and dance instead whenever I wanted.

Her businesslike demeanor struck me as I stood in my underthings, freezing in the cold office. I found it unsettling, but more than anything else I felt an incredible sense of triumph. I knew as well as the personnel lady did that I was not going to be behind the bar. When I got outside, the temperature had dropped significantly and it was snowing, a slushy, slippery snow that made it hard to walk in the four inch stilettos I’d worn to the interview. I wasn’t dressed for such serious cold and I was pretty sure I’d fall and break my neck at any moment, but none of that mattered. I was going to be a peeler again. I was going to dance naked and grind on strange men and make so much money. I frantically emailed my best friend, telling her all about everything, not even caring that Stanley routinely went into my email looking for proof of infidelity or lack of interest.

I had forgotten entirely how powerful sex work made me, how much I loved it, and how lost I was without it. The joy I felt at being back overcame all the whisperings of doubt and the terrible knowledge that I’d have to lie and lie and lie some more.

None of that mattered, I was alive again and soon I’d be free.

Cathryn Berarovich is something of a renaissance sex worker; she’s currently employed as a stripper (and writer) but has held numerous interesting jobs in the industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.