“..And he touches you with his fingers. And he burns holes in your skin with his mouth. And it hurts when you look at him. And it hurts when you don’t. And it feels like someone’s cut you open with a jagged piece of glass.”
― Maureen Medved, The Tracey Fragments
She smelled of mint and musk and cigarettes.
It was a warm, comforting scent that surrounded her very presence—it rose from the folds of her clothes, entwined itself with her soft, dark curls and clung to the moistness of her lips.
It was a scent I associated with familiarity, with a hundred little objects that cluttered our room—bedsheets, cushions, artificial-flowers arranged in stained porcelain vases on the coffee-table, sheaves of note paper and magazines scattered on the chaise.
Mint. Musk. Cigarettes.
It was the tingling blend of these fragrances that my life revolved around, became one with the memories of those months spent together.
The ‘beginning’ isn’t integral to our story.
It’s the way we wove it together that made it what it was.
Seven months was all we spent together.
She was an escort. She had been an escort for three years, since she had turned nineteen.
It was a truth I had learnt to accept over the initial weeks of our association.
Every other evening, she repeated the same ritual before stepping out into the night.
It was the ritual that followed a phone call.
She’d select a dress from the wardrobe, the colour of which would depend on the specifications ordered over the phone.
She’d spend two long hours before the mirror—styling her hair, lining her eyes with kohl, powdering that inscrutable face and painting her lips the rich, irresistible shade of wine red.
She’d step into a pair of ridiculously high heels, drape a thick black shawl round her lean, delicate frame and wait on the doorstep, till a sleek, dark vehicle emerged from the velvety darkness.
The door would open, a hand would reach out to clasp hers.
Looking through the window, I would sometimes spot a golden watch on the wrist, or a crystal-studded coat button.
She’d step into the car, the door would close.
And then, in a matter of seconds, she’d be gone.
She’d return in the wee hours of the morning with smudged make-up, clothes askew, face as inscrutable as ever.
She’d remove the layers of clothing and the remnants of face-paint, and she’d sit before the mirror, naked, gingerly caressing the new scar or two that that night’s lover had inflicted. Never a flinch, or a squirm.
She’d step into the shower, spending more than an hour behind closed doors.
“It’s more than just cleaning the body,” she’d explained once. “It takes a while to erase the memories of their touch, their smell, the ugly, pungent desire with which they feel me, their hunger for my bare flesh.”
She’d come out wrapped in an old cotton gown, enveloped in the familiar fragrance of mint and musk. She’d sit on the window ledge, smoking a cigarette, watching the sleepy ball of fire paint the city in vivid hues of pink and gold and scarlet.
As the city awoke, she’d end her day, covering herself in her brown fleece blanket and coaxing herself into that silent world of dreams where thick, bejewelled fingers would no longer reach out to grab her breasts.
Most of the day, my writing would keep me busy. My editor was a rather demanding old man, and I ended up spending sleepless nights in that tiny space we called our ‘living room’, with several cups of caffeine keeping me company.
On the nights when she did not have her ‘appointments’, we’d talk into the early hours of dawn.
Our beds were aligned against the wall on either side of the room, leaving a passage in between.
We’d sit up on the bed, facing each other, letting the conversation follow its own uncharted route.
During these long nights, we’d let our masks crack, a little at a time, till there would be nothing more left to bare. Stories would tell themselves, revealing secrets that we’d spent a lifetime trying to hide.
Very often, we talked about her ‘job’.
“You know,” she’d say, “Sometimes, I don’t remember a thing about the night once I wake up the next afternoon. Sometimes, there are these little details that stay on—the colour of the wall, the texture of the bedspread, the pattern of the tiles on the floor—while I can’t even recall if the guy had a moustache or a beard. Then again, there are features that impress themselves on the mind—a tiny scar maybe, or a mole, or the strange angle of his nose, or a pair of startlingly blue eyes.”
She’d pause, and take a deep breath.
“Sometimes, the memories are not so easily dismissible. There are times when I recall the sick, suffocating odour of another mouth on mine, or the feel of rough, calloused palms forcing themselves up along my legs. It chokes me.”
Pain lines those faint wrinkles that the layers of make-up and years of inexplicable sorrow have left on her pale, pretty face.
It’s a pain I cannot understand, cannot pretend to empathise with.
I have learnt not to interrupt, not to punctuate our conversations with interrogations when not required. We both know that some wounds are too deep to nurture.
So we let them be, and we move on.
“Has there ever been a man you’ve liked?” I had once asked.
She had simply laughed.
“In our business, my dear, you don’t let emotions mess with your ‘job’. It’s all in a night’s work. There are rules, and you stick to your side of the bargain. No strings attached.”
On some of those free nights, we went out to explore the city.
There was a movie or two, followed by dinner, a long walk along the empty streets.
We’d return long after midnight to resume conversations that we’d left incomplete.
There were times when the conversations took rather unexpected turns, and we did not know how to deal with them. That’s when we discovered that while secret, words are often superfluous.
It was around eleven on one of her free nights, and we were sitting across each other on the bed, deep in conversation. She had a cup of coffee in her right hand, and her left hand was playing with her freshly-washed damp curls.
“All these nights when I’m away, you’ve never brought anyone to the room. A little surprising, if you ask me.”
I looked into her eyes. Frank, unabashed curiosity met my gaze.
I lifted my hands to unbutton my shirt; the slight trembling of my fingers did not escape her sharp gaze.
Lowering my eyes, I tore off the square piece of cloth on the left side of my chest, close to the collar bone.
I heard her sharp intake of breath. I heard the clink of the coffee cup as she laid it on the bedside table. I heard the bed creak as she stepped off, onto the mosaic floor, and came towards me.
She sat on the edge of my bed. Her hand reached out.
I felt her warm fingers touch the sixteen-year old cut, where you could still make out the marks that teeth had left on tender flesh. The red, puckered skin throbbed and pulsated, exactly as it had all those years ago.
She didn’t say a word.
She didn’t need to.
The night sought comfort in touches—entwined fingers, hands clasping numb limbs, the warmth of bare skin against skin.
With passing nights, we learned to let the heart seek intimacy through more tangible ways, without letting words disturb the scented silence of those moonlit hours.
We never talked about our ‘pasts’.
She loved talking about all the things she’d do once she had enough money to give up her ‘job’. She spoke of the places she’d visit, the people she’d meet, the things she’d do once she was free.
I told her about the book I’ve wanted to write, about the home I want– somewhere high up on a hill where I’d be surrounded by pine trees and foggy, fragrant silence.
We shared music, we shared poetry.
We shared our dreams, our hopes for what the future had in store.
Above all, we shared our belief in miracles.
Through it all, we taught ourselves to heal, letting the body take over where the mind alone had failed.
She left at the end of seven months.
She was raped—the second time in her life.
Two men. One dark alley. Within the hearing of a dozen others who chose to shut their ears to the screams that rent the night.
She escaped with a few injuries, half a dozen scars and enough trauma to last her a lifetime.
“I need to leave,” she told me that morning. “This place holds too many memories.”
She held my hand for a while, and kissed me gently on the cheek.
“Some things can’t be healed more than once.”
I watched silently as she packed.
She left behind all the memories of her job—most of her clothes, her face-paint, her sleek, golden heels, her black, sequinned shawl.
She didn’t tell me where she was headed.
She sat on the window ledge all afternoon, smoking one cigarette after another.
Damp curls. Faraway look in those sharp grey eyes. Scars on that wrinkled, inscrutable face.
It was almost evening when she left the house.
She cast one distant glance around the room—scattered magazines, sheaves of notepaper, stained porcelain-vases, unwashed coffee cups from the morning’s conversation.
I closed my eyes, letting the fragrance of mint and musk and cigarette overwhelm my senses, one last time.
We stood facing each other—a vast, throbbing, wordless silence filling the chasm between us.
And then, she reached out.
She reached out and touched me on the shoulder—a little above my left breast, where she knew was a scar, hidden under the folds of my shawl.
I closed my eyes for a brief minute, and then I felt the hand withdraw.
“I’ll be seeing you,” she said, crisply.
The hand reached out again. It rested on my head for a moment, lingered for a few seconds in my unkempt curls before retracting.
I thought I saw the hint of a smile play on her lips. Or maybe, it was just the illusion of the dancing twilight shadows.
“I’ll be seeing you,” she repeated.
And then, she was gone.
I stood there, watching the shadows waltz around gleefully—whispering, clinging to one another, tugging playfully at my arms, at the end of my shawl.
Slowly, painfully, I began my journey back. A long walk—one step at a time.
The scar was still throbbing, long after the warmth of her touch had been lost to the cold winter night.
The end of a journey.
Seven months—two women—one story.