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This is the story of the night I spent with the first prostitutes I ever met. Or how I understood the perks of being able to choose the path I want to follow in life.
Think about a night that completely got away from you.
A night you weren’t expecting to end the way it did.
You got it?
Let me tell you about mine.
Marbella, summer 2010.
I was not twenty years old yet. My parents, my best friend and I went on vacation. The destination was quite fancy: Marbella, Spanish Andalusia. We had planned seven days of farniente. No shame, no guilt. In the evening, we would have dinner in the marina, a microcosm mainly populated by English tourists, and girls whose skirts were tinier than my bikini bottom.
After dinner, my parents would go back to the hotel and let my best friend Natasha and me have one drink (or two) in one of the many touristy bars in the port.
One night, after a three-dish Indian meal, Nat and I decided to go for a walk along the marina, in search of stories to tell and memories to collect.
To give a picture of the marina, imagine on one side the Saudi tourists’ yachts and Porsches, and on the other side English expat establishments, where the service is as mediocre as the taste of the drinks.
We found a place on the terrace of a bar, sheltered from the noise of reggaeton and bachelorette parties. We had only just sat down when two girls sat right next to us. Why not chat with them? Nat and I just wanted to make new friends, get wasted, and dance all night long. The setting seemed perfect.
Or so we thought.
What do you do for a living?
We started to chat, in English. One of the girls was Belgian, the other was Spanish.
As we sipped white wine, we discussed the decoration of the place, the people in the city, the weather at this time of the year. Boring small talk.
On a curious, protective, and almost tender way, they start to show some interest in us. Both Michelle and Rocio were older than us, 26 and 30 years old, respectively. Older not only on paper: their behaviors expressed a certain maturity, a different perspective on life – one less carefree than ours.
Suddenly, the conversation moved to something unexpected, which started with the unavoidable question we all ask, and cannot escape – as much as we want to – when it comes to getting to know someone, to defining that someone.
“What do you guys do for a living?”, Michelle asks.
“I study translation,” I said, proudly. “German and Spanish. I want to become an interpreter.”
“And I am in law school,” Nat says.
”Wow. Isn’t German a language with declinations? That must be hard,” comments Rocio.
“Exactly. It is not the easiest language I have learned so far.”
“And you guys, what do you do for a living?”
The night that gets away, remember?
“I own an escort and prostitution agency based in Belgium,” Michelle says.
“And I work for her” adds Rocio.
My brain was flooded with question marks:
Huh? What? Why? I mean… how? Like, how does one end up… Is it a choice? I’ve always thought one does not choose to work as… I mean… And how is the pay? Isn’t it a horrendous job? And from what age do you sell your bodies? Why didn’t you study? What’s your story? And your parents? Do they know about it? Do you really have sex for money?
It wasn’t easy to resume the conversation after such a bomb. Nat and I must have shown the struggle on our faces, so they hastened to end the awkward moment. We returned to our conversation about trivial topics, about daily life. And, obviously, we asked them a couple of questions about their work.
Michelle told us how she first started to work as a masseuse, and then as an escort. She used to walk with pride on men’s arms during fancy dinners. Later on, she opened her own agency in Flanders, a stone’s throw away from my home – not that Belgium is such an extended territory, but it makes her story more concrete and real to me.
Where I come from, prostitution brings to mind the Gare du Nord in Brussels, the first page of that book I read in school (Mr. Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran), and the Red Light District in Amsterdam. And that’s it.
I was not even 20 years old when I met those women. I had a blue-eyed, blond-haired boyfriend. My life was basically student parties, Sunday brunches, and exam season anxiety. I came from the world where prostitution does not have a face nor a name. Prostitutes only existed in novels and series. Not in real life. Not sipping wine next to me in a bar.
In my naive and innocent brain, prostitutes do not know that German is a language with declinations.
They do not chat with judgmental teenagers. They do not have to feed a 4-year-old son at 26.
Sex trafficking, drugs, abuse, and violence – that is what comes to mind when I think of prostitutes.
Saying that they live quiet lives in an ordinary neighborhood would banalize their jobs and overlook the dangers of their work: Michelle told us that, although she is her own boss, not working for a pimp or a network, her daily life does not include student parties, Sunday brunches, or exam season anxiety. She had once been threatened with a knife and asphyxiated with chloroform. None of her encounters were enchanting.
On the other hand, thinking that prostitutes are only the desperate junkies standing on a street corner would translate a certain ignorance and a sweeping generalization.
Rocio made us promise to never, ever put a single toe in this business. And so we did. “Because you don’t get out of it,” she says. “One thousand euros in one night, you don’t turn down that kind of offer. No matter what.”
One thousand euros was the amount of money Youssef, a recently acquired client, was about to spend.
After Rocio found him wriggling on the dance floor, with a hungry look in his eyes, she invited him to join us outside. He paid for the Champagne, the strawberries, and the whipped cream.
The next morning, Rocio and Michelle would walk out with 500 additional euros in their pockets.
In the cab on our way back to the hotel, silence. Words just didn’t come out.
First of all, where to start?
And second of all, even just the thought of what the night had in store for our “friends” made us want to throw up our three-dish Indian meal.
That Youssef guy, sitting with his legs spread on that couch, was about to spend a thousand euros on the bodies of the women who had become our friends three hours before.
A thousand euros. Our friends. Who we thought we would party with all night long. Our friends, who would have loved to learn German, but whose lives had warped their dreams and ambitions.
Do I have to feel that I have to realize mine to honor theirs? Do I have to feel bad because I was born “on the right side” – and what is “the right side”, anyway? They didn’t seem unhappy with the life they had. But what do I even know about it?
However, as innocent and naive as it might sound, I just wish every woman could enjoy the perks of choosing the path she wishes to follow in life.
And that not a single woman would have to spend the night pleasing someone else so she can feed her 4-year old kid in the morning.
The night we shared was probably meaningless to Michelle and Rocio. But to me, that night was a slap in the face. The real world hit me. Far away from my fancy hotel room in Marbella. No, actually: so close to my hotel room, but behind mascara and whipped cream.
Prostitution, I found, does look different than the version I only knew through documentaries in Thailand, or scenes from Taken.
It exists here too. In Spain, in Andalusia, on that terrace in Marbella.
That night, prostitution had a face, an age, and a name.
Two, actually: Michelle and Rocio.