Our Mistakes

The single-pane window was covered by plastic blinds, the off-white lines not quite folding all the way, and through the gaps she could see the flickering lights of the motel sign, highlighted by a weak, red glow. It was early – a quick glance at the clock on the wall informed her it was about four in the morning – yet still she could hear the constant purr of traffic travelling down the long, straight road that sat adjacent to the motel, the sort of endless highway that was never empty. It was quiet otherwise, only the gentle ticking of the clock to be heard coupled with the sound of her own breathing, and the groan of a mattress past its prime as she shifted against the rigid bed upon which she perched.

Even though all the lights were off, the sickly yellow beams that crept through those cracks in the blinds were just enough to illuminate the details of the room, the basic, low-grade furniture, the paraphernalia on the desk. Clothes were strewn across the floor, a checked shirt here, in the corner a narrow tie, and a jacket had been slung carelessly over the back of the wicker-seat chair, the contents of the pocket having spilled onto the sullied carpet below. On the end table to her side, a blocky, wooden thing with a single drawer, sat a mobile phone, which, as she peered in a little closer, suddenly came to life, causing her to jump slightly. The screen lit up with the image of a woman in her forties, smiling proudly at the camera, as the phone vibrated gently against the table, probably inaudible to the customer, who had been in the bathroom for the past ten minutes. She didn’t know what he was doing – he had excused himself not two minutes after she had arrived, offered him a forcedly sultry greeting – but she did not bother to alert him to this early-morning caller. Within moments, the phone was dead again, the woman’s face no longer on the screen, and all was still once more.

Feeling boredom beginning to consume her, she inspected her surroundings once again. The customer had left a book, not too far from the phone, which she pulled towards her, dragging it lazily against the hard, stained surface. Squinting in the darkness, she could just about make out the title – The Catcher in the Rye – and her fingers traced the stylised horse that leapt across the cover, swirling brushstrokes of cream languidly running across crimson. She had a vague recollection of reading this one in school – all the kids read this one in school, and, before she’d turned to working nights, she had quite enjoyed reading – but, in the early morning haze and the numbness that spread through her legs from the cold of the poorly-heated motel room, she could not stir those childhood memories. She could not even remember what this book was about, she thought, as she flicked through it idly, the running pages tickling the edge of her thumb as they flew past, until it had reached the back cover. She was tempted to read the first few pages, but the thud of footsteps in the bathroom reminded her that she was working.

From behind the paper-thin door to the bathroom, suddenly, there came the sound of retching – was that him? As she strained her ears to listen, she caught the muffled sound of a single, short sob. It surprised her. She could almost hear a cold sweat falling from his forehead, each single bead dropping to the floor and crashing against the linoleum, and the sound of his muscles twitching and shaking, and then she knew – he was stalling, behind that door, pacing, probably caught up in a wave of nausea because this was a mistake. Of course it was a mistake – this entire field of business, if it could be called so, was a mistake, every transaction another mistake – but never before had a customer deemed it so. It was a first for her, and it almost made her want to cry, summoning from within her a sadness, the source of which she could not quite pinpoint, but in this split moment of something entirely uncanny – she found it unfamiliar, but so understandable – it almost hurt.

The grind of the door being unlocked caused her to turn her head, and there, with his back to the dim light of the bathroom, stood the customer, his silhouetted hand still trembling as he gripped the metal handle tightly. She looked at his face – the first time she’d seen it in any proper light – and was taken, not only by the sheet-like pallor of panic, nor the wet stains upon those colourless cheeks, but the vulnerability. Now she saw, for that façade of eagerness he’d initially displayed, he was just a boy, perhaps only just seventeen or eighteen, one who’d raced into a headstrong decision with teenage zealousness, or maybe one who’d tried to quell sorrows with a first experience, but definitely one who, for all his youth, was vulnerable. As he waited, naked save for his shorts, goosebumps rising on his pale, smooth flesh, she saw before her an exposed, scared being, and, in the strains of painful memories, it reminded her of what it was like to be young, vulnerable, scared and exposed.

“I – I’m sorry, this, this was a bad idea,” he choked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand after he’d spoken. She didn’t ask why. She didn’t ask what had been going through his head when he’d picked up that card and that telephone – later, she would speculate, wonder if he saw sex as proof of manhood, or if she was a drunken decision made by a boy miles away from home. For now, though, she did not even think to ask why, simply accepting what was as she stood, the bedsprings creaking, running a hand across the creases in the dress that clung to her slender frame, and nodded with a wan smile.

“Here, look – I’m so sorry, look –“ he stammered, as, seemingly caught up with fear, he dived to the desk and flung the drawer open, rummaging about frantically before extending a money clip towards her, thrusting it forth as a sort of offering, an armistice to fend off the fate the media had drilled into his head – “Please, I’ll pay you. Look, don’t, I’ll pay you for your time and everything –“

“Please, don’t.” She delicately pushed his hand away, leaving it to fall limply by his side. She didn’t want to be paid, not for this. Being paid to become an object of lust and nothing more was in itself painful, hollow, but this, taking money from a scared youth because he’d made a mistake, was something she found personally unthinkable. He had no reason to pay her. She had no reason to accept his money. It would have been so clichéd, for her to think she was doing this in her capacity as the hooker with the heart of gold, but, in reality, there was nothing else she could do. Plagued with this existential moment, where a customer was afraid and she was feared, she was no longer herself. Like some twisted mirror, she saw in him the wreck of a youth she had been, with that same bruised naivety, and – to see it in someone else, something she had guarded so zealously and smothered with her false security – it was crippling. She could only turn to go.

Neither bid the other farewell as she crept out of the motel room. For all the raw emotion and the pure humanity of that moment, with masks shattered by the unexpected, neither had anything else to say. She felt his eyes upon her, oddly peaceful, as she left, and, when the door had been closed, she knew she would see them no more. She hadn’t even known his name, she mused, and even now she knew his face would soon fade from her memory as more customers replaced him in her mind, the look of helplessness in his eyes soon to be substituted for that carnal desire she had come to know. Even so, though, she knew she would try desperately to hold onto the moment, that single moment of understanding, where the low-class prostitute had more in common with the lost young man than anyone else in the world, just as another of those vague memories, perhaps, like reading Salinger in school, that might stir again sometime in the future, when she was alone, with her thoughts, and those tiny seconds of oblivion.

The sun was rising now, slowly, just peeking over the horizon as the edge of the night sky began to fade from deep purple to dewy orange, as she walked away from the motel and into the direction of the gradual sunrise. Still consumed by this feeling of bizarre tranquillity, but also a level of bleak emptiness, she sighed, taking a moment to compose herself before putting the barriers back up once again, and resuming her working woman persona. Letting her thoughts of the young man run from her head – she was still on the clock for another two hours – she allowed herself one final glance at the flickering sign before resigning herself to reality, and the grounding fact that, unlike in her fantasy world, one moment of empathy between a stranger would never be enough to pull her from this pit into which she had fallen so far. This was her final thought of him for the day, as she lit up a cigarette, the cherry burning brightly in the darkness, no longer someone’s kindred spirit for a fleeting second – instead, again, a whore under the streetlight.

Highlighted by a weak, red glow, onwards she walked, heels clicking against concrete pavement, onwards to the next job. Always, onwards to the next job.

By Brandon Seager

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