Authors: Jules Moulin
is that?” Ally stood at the kitchen counter, chopping onions to cook a brisket.
She needed something to savor that morning, a fleshy food, warm and dripping, to bite and chew and swallow. She'd tripled the wine and the brown sugar and simmered the beef for six long hours on low, low, low, until it would practically melt in her mouth.
“They set up a camera and people sign in and it's live,” Jake explained, his cap pulled low and sunglasses on. He was walking north on Fifth Avenue, weaving through tourists, back to the St. Regis.
?” Ally asked, chopping and holding the phone with her shoulder.
“Yes,” he said.
“What do they do?”
“People pay money to, you know, watch.”
“To tell the girlsâwhat to do.”
Ally stopped chopping and put down the knife. “Are you kidding?”
“That's why I'm calling.”
“Like sexual things? Naked things?”
“The girls get off or dance around. Some have sex.”
“Is it recorded?”
“It can be,” said Jake.
Ally said nothing. She turned and looked around the kitchen. What was going on with this child? What was Lizzie thinking? “Has sheâhas she started this yet?”
“She said she has an audition today. She's going this morning with Weather.”
Ally turned and walked out of the kitchen, furious. “That
That girlâalways has the most bizarreâ You should see her.” She didn't speak as she walked down the hall and up the stairs to the third floor.
After some moments, Jake wasn't sure if she'd hung up or not. “Are you still there?”
“Can I help? Can I come over?”
“I won't be here. I'm going into town. I'm going to find her and lock her up.” Ally stepped into her closet, looked around. She found a pair of jeans and pulled them on over her underwear.
“Tell her I told you. She asked me not to, but I don't care.”
“Thank you,” she said, zipping up her jeans.
“I thought you mightâ”
“Yes. Thanks. It's right that you called. How did you leave it? Was she mad?”
“We left it fine.”
“We have a rule. I call three times and she calls back. She's breaking the rule. It's unbreakable. She's ignoring me.”
“She just laughed. I told you she would.”
“Good,” Ally said, unrelieved. “Will you see her on set?”
“No, that's done. She did her line. But I can call her.”
“Please, and tell her to call me. Please.”
“Sure,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Jake?” she asked plaintively. “Why would she
this? Did she say?”
“She wants her nose.”
Ally closed her eyes in anguish.
Minutes later on Cranberry Street, Ally, dressed, flew down the stairs. She grabbed her purse and keys from the table. She grabbed an umbrella from inside the closet. The bell rang as she opened the door.
The UPS man stood on the stoop. “Morning, Ally.”
“Morning, Frank.” Surprised, she signed for the unexpected box. She thanked Frank, took it inside, and set it on the floor at the foot of the stairs.
Quickly she glanced at the little white sticker in the top left corner, to see who'd sent it. “La Perla?”
Then she stood up, as straight as an arrow. It must be a gift, but from Ted? Ally drew a quick breath in.
Or Jake? Or Jake.
AFTER HER FIRST THREE
sexless years, Ally decided that not having sex brought about its own brand of thrill. Maybe not widely known or exalted. In America. Or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. But celibacy, chosen or not, was underrated, she decided. It was. She was sure. She was sure that monks knew some kind of joy, a spiritual pleasure, sensual even, that sex-having people did not understand.
“It's the kind of pleasure that brings you back to when you were ten,” she explained to Anna one day on the phone. Before puberty reared its head. “Remember? When life was about morning cartoons? Snuggling with your doll? When you were eight?”
“Actually,” Anna explained, “the whole idea of a
period in middle childhood? All that Freud shit? That's been debunked. Middle childhood is sexual. Sort of.” Anna was studying psychiatry.
“I'm not talking
,” Ally argued. “I'm talking about the
of being barefoot in spring. Riding bikes. Apple slices. All those bubble baths. Baking cookies, cocoa in winter, lemonade in summerÂ .Â .Â .”
“I don't think we had the same childhood,” Anna said.
Ally ignored this. “My point is: Pleasure was
something else. It was different, sure, but comparable, right? To sex? Just different. Right?”
“I think you need to get laid, Ally.”
She knew it was silly to be modest now, now that they had had sex in the bathtub twice in the bright light of morning. But she couldn't help it.
She wasn't the type to walk around naked in front of anyone, even a man who had seen every inch of her body in daylight.
Quickly she dressed and brushed her hair, thinking of all she had to do: the papers, the grades due Monday. Monday by noon. She had to buy bananas. The hampers were full and she had to buy bleach to wash the whites. She had also promised to drive to Connecticut, to an antique toy store, to buy figurines for Lizzie's report. The diorama was due on Tuesday. Tuesday, which was Lizzie's birthday. She needed vanilla to bake Lizzie's cake. She needed to sign her up for camp.
“Can I come with you?” Jake asked, stepping from the bathroom, pink and clean, zipping up his jeans.
“To Mystic, right?”
Ally paused. She looked concerned.
As much as she had enjoyed herself, enjoyed Jake, Lizzie was due home in a day. Sunday morning. Yes, that meant they had twenty-four hours, but the whole thing had to end sometime. He couldn't spend the night again. Could he?
Or could he?
Did he want to?
That would be cutting it way too close.
But another part of Ally, an aching part, wanted him to stay and stay and stay. She looked down at his sock on the floor. She wanted that sock to stay there forever. On her floor. Next to her bed. She would never complain about that sock. “Jake,” she said kindly, pleading in a way, turning to him.
“What? Say it. We've had our fun?”
“That's not what I wasâ”
“You don't want company on your drive?”
Yes, she did, butâ
“Let's grab lunch.”
“What ifâwhat ifâsomeone sees us?”
Jake picked up his button-down shirt. He couldn't find his T-shirt. “At some little store in a whole other
?” He pulled his arm through it.
Ally put her brush down and looked at the bed, its rumpled sheets and fraying blanket. She then looked at Jake as he buttoned his shirt. If she sent him home now, would she see him again? Ever? No.
“Come on,” he said, rolling up his sleeves. “We'll eat oysters and churn butter.” He ran his fingers through his thick wet hair. “It's a beautiful day.” He turned and started to straighten the bed.
“You don't have toâ” She crossed to him.
“Yes, I do.” She joined him and they pulled up the top sheet together, then the blanket. Jake began to tuck them in.
Ally then stopped. She was struck by how easy it was to make a bed with someone else. It's a two-person job, a bed. It's a two-person job, this life.
And then she said, “I don't tuck.”
Jake looked up. “Why not?”
“Why tuck when you'll kick it out tonight?”
Jake grabbed the pillows. He threw them to her and she arranged them.
“You know,” he said, picking up his sneakers, “it's fun to escape from your life for an hour, but it's more fun to do it with a friend.”
LIZZIE HAD FASHIONED HER
costume at Weather's. They stood in front of the bathroom mirror.
She was pleased. Brown ringlets hung to her waist. Fake red nails extended her fingers. Colored contacts turned her eyes blue. She drew, with precision, two fake birthmarks, one on her back and one on her belly, with waterproof mascara, and they both wore stilettos, shorts, and white tank tops.
“Wife beaters,” Lizzie said as they gazed at themselves. “That's what these are called.”
“We don't look like battered wives,” Weather replied. “We look like hookers.”
Lizzie turned to her and smiled. “Perfect.”
Ally took the train to Fourteenth. She walked eight blocks through the sweltering heat to Lizzie's building.
She buzzed and buzzed with no real hope, then took out her phone and looked for a place to sit and wait.
Across the street, she found a stoop in a patch of shade under some blue wood scaffolding. From there she could see east and west across the whole block. She'd see Lizzie first when Lizzie came home.
“I already texted you. You ignored those,” she started, leaving her a message. “And we have a deal. Three callsâyou call me back. Three calls. And this is, like, my twentieth. Two days. I'm upset.”
She left it at that.
She looked across the street at Lizzie's building and wondered why they both lived alone.
Wasn't it the millennial thing? Kids fresh from school living with their parents? Lizzie could have an entire floor on Cranberry Street.
Ally felt badly. She should have offered. Now she would. She called Lizzie back. “By the way, I'm sitting outside here, at your building, and I'm wondering why you're paying rent when you don't have to. I know you need your freedomâbut it seems so silly. It's really a very American thing. To insist on living on your own. Okay? Call me.”
Lizzie ignored her mother's call. They rode the train to Brooklyn, hopped off on Carroll, and walked to Red Hook.
Across Third Avenue and under the Gowanus, they found the building. Only the ground floor looked alive, with a limousine depot and a small shop selling radiator parts. Fishman had rented the top two floors, the ninth and tenth, with fourteen offices inside each. The rest lay fallow, collecting soot.
They looked for the entrance for fifteen minutes and finally found it around the block, where Fishman was waiting.
Khakis, polo, no socks, tan, he looked as if he'd stepped off the Jitney, and maybe he had. “Pleased to meet you!” he called. “Thrilled!” He shook their hands. “Which one's Jenny?”
“Me,” said Lizzie. “This is Weather.”
“Great,” said Fishman. “Ted's like a brother. Teddy is great.”
“Yes,” said Lizzie. “Yes, yes, he is.”
On the ninth floor, they walked through the polished, winding halls.
“The building was built in 1901. It was a factory. Sugar, they say. A sugar mill.” Fishman led them past door after door, all of them shut. Music floated out into the hall. “You work the same studio. Room is yours, twenty-four-seven, except for one to three at night, when the cleaning crew comes. No charge.” He turned around and smiled.
They both smiled back.
Lizzie then heard the song “Putin Zassal” from inside a room. She recognized it. “Pussy Riot! The Russian group! Love!”
Fishman frowned. “But Russian isn't our brand. I'll remind her.”
“You have a
?” Lizzie asked, curious. Ted hadn't mentioned a brand.
Six years before, he had personally funded a marketing study of “Global Internet Porn Habits.” The study broke web searches down by region, then by country, around the world.
With the results, he and his partner decided to focus on Western Europe, specifically Belgium.
Belgians, he said, the research said, trolled the web for American girls. So did the French. So they decided to sell them a type. “The models who work here have to look
“What does that mean?” Lizzie asked.
“American college. Innocent but slutty. Fresh but willing.”
The girls nodded. They understood.
The sites, he explained, charged five bucks a minute, American dollars, for the live meetings. “Four hundred thousand clients a day,” Fishman bragged. “Our models are cut into the flat minute rate at fifty percent, plus tips. Fifty percent!” he said with a smile. “Some make four hundred bucks an hour.”
He didn't say more. He didn't say he'd installed hidden cameras in every studio.
Or that they'd recorded the sessions from start to finish, from four different angles, close-up and wide.
The hundreds of hours of digital footage, naked footage, sliced and diced into ten-minute shorts, compiled, and sold worldwide as a series, this was his secret.
He didn't say that
volumes one, two, and three, had earned investors, including Ted, millions of dollars.
Finally, Fishman had found success.
Instead, he walked them into the pantry. “This is free to anyone working.” He opened the cabinets to show off boxes of candy, health bars, chips. A small table sat by the window with three midcentury chairs around it. “Soda in the fridge. We keep it pretty stocked. Microwave there.” He pointed to it and then turned. “Questions?”
The girls shook their heads.
Down the hall, in the payroll office, Josh was typing as they entered. He was twenty-two and wore a black baseball cap backward. “That hag, before, pushed thirty, yo.” He didn't see Lizzie and Weather in the doorway. “Rolls of fat ain't curves, you old hag.”
“That's enough, Josh. We've got guests.” Fishman opened his leather briefcase and took out his phone. “I apologize for Josh. This way, ladies.”
Surprised, Josh turned and looked at the girls as Fishman led them back into the hall.
“I just need photos. Back, side, front,” Fishman said as they walked. “Again, please keep your underthings on.” He opened the door to an empty room and led them inside. “I'll be out here. Knock when you're ready.”
In the room, the girls looked around. It was empty except for a folding chair.
“What a jerk. That IT guy?” Lizzie said.
“I thought he was cute.” Weather pulled off her tank top.
“Wannabe Eminem bullshit. Please.”
“This is fun.” Weather giggled and pulled down her shorts.
,” Lizzie replied, lifting her tank top up and off. They piled their clothes onto the chair. Lizzie looked at the door. “Are we sure we want to do this?”
“Why? What's wrong?”
“I don't know. We're naked here.”
“What did you think? I have bathing suits that show more than this.”
“I know. Okay, why am I freaking?”
“Exactly. Everything's covered. For now.”
They laughed. Weather moved to the door and cracked it. “Ready,” she said.
In the hall, Fishman was texting. He looked up at Weather, entered the room, and closed the door.
For the next few minutes, the girls posed with pursed lips and sleepy eyes, and Fishman shot them with his iPhoneâclick, click, click. “Give me some sugar.” Front, side, and back. And that was that.
That was the tryout.
“Thank you,” he said. “My partner's at home with a sick kid today. No camp. Let me text these and we'll have an answer in five minutes. Thank you, girls.”
“Thank you,” they said at the same time.
“Jinx,” said Lizzie.
Back across the river and up north a bit, Ally bought a large iced coffee at La Follia on Third. Manhattan's Third. It was three by then, but the sun was south and blocked by the building whose stoop she had borrowed.
“Here's the thing,” she began again, flooding Lizzie's voice mail. “Say it's not wrong. What you're doing. For argument's sake.” Her gaze floated across the street to Lizzie's window, four stories above. Hydrangeas sat on the windowsill. “Get naked. No problem. Feel your power. Except that
people think it's a problem.
people think it's wrong. Twenty years pass and you're my age, and maybe you're feeling less empowered. Work dries up. Acting, let's say. Or you want to quit. Good-bye, acting! Hello, philanthropy! Hello, teaching! You apply for jobs, and
somehowÂ .Â .Â .
This boss, that boss, they all know that you, Lizzie Hughes, Duke graduate, Juilliard graduate, hopefully, that you, in fact, were a sex worker onceÂ .Â .Â . That's what they call them, by the way. Like table server or camp counselor or ice-cream scooper. Elizabeth Hughes: sex worker.” Ally took a breath and stopped. “Anyway,” she said and then continued. “They all reject you because of this job from when you were twenty. This phase. Photos, video, it doesn't matter. It's out there, on record. Forever.”
A recorded voice then cut Ally off. “You have reached the maximum time.”
“I have?” She looked at her phone, confused.
“To send your message, press one,” the voice said.
“Wait, one?” She pressed one.
“To listen to your message, press two.”
Ally pressed one four more times. “Send, send. I want to send.”
“To rerecord, press three,” said the voice.
“No, please, wait! I'm pressing one! I'm pressing one! This is important!”
“For more options, press four. To cancel, press star.”
Ally looked at her phone and pressed four. “More options, more optionsÂ .Â .Â .”
It didn't work. “Sorry,” said the voice. “Please try again.”
Somehow the message got through anyway.