My friend was telling me about a time he got mugged in Vietnam. “So I’m staying at a fleapit motel in the arse end of nowhere,” Charlie said, “and I’ve got two girls in my room, when their pimps burst through the door waving guns.”
I took a sip of my beer, trying not to sound overly interested. “And then what happened?”
“Wankers took me for everything I had, didn’t they?” Charlie said. “Including my clothes. The same thing happened to me once in China, where my throat was nearly slit.”
I nodded. It was a late summer afternoon, and we were sitting outside a famous old café in Buenos Aires. A shrieking parakeet swept down towards our table. After snatching a sachet of mayonnaise in his beak, he vanished into the snaking branches of an ombú tree.
“Then there was the prostitute in Amsterdam,” Charlie continued, “who told me that my penis was like an anaconda.”
“That was probably the only English phrase she knew,” I said.
Charlie paused, frowning a little. “What about you, have you ever paid for sex?”
I stammered, “No. Never directly.”
“Why not?” Charlie wanted to know.
It seemed a fair enough question, but I hadn’t the faintest idea what to tell him. My thoughts drifted back a few weeks, when I’d had guests from Uruguay staying at my apartment. They’d brought their Bichon Frise with them across the Rio de la Plata, and somehow, I’d been charged with taking her out for walks. Fanny would mince snootily alongside me, or lie flat in the middle of a road, refusing to budge an inch, as I fended off relentless attention from passing males. “¡Qué bonita tu perrita! Acá está mi número de teléfono. ¡Llámame!”
One morning, though, when Fanny was dragging me towards a park across the way to shit in the long grass, I happened past a pair of young women who made mention of her long, taffy pink leash. Regarding me with considerable force, the prettier of the two girls asked, “¿Vos sos gay?”
In Argentina, this sort of political incorrectness is everywhere. My first instinct was to cancel her, despite her looks. But before I had the chance, she visibly softened. “Relax, baby,” she said in very bad English, biting her lip suggestively. “How. Are. Is. You?”
Fanny was straining at the leash, threatening to piss on my espadrilles. Meanwhile, the other, bespectacled girl was making an elaborate series of silent signals behind her pretty friend’s back. Thumbs up; thumbs down; thumbs up; thumbs down. Fanny began to yap at her. I shrugged, signalling my desire to quit their strange little game and get on with my day. The girls exchanged a censorious huff, then skimmed arm-in-arm down the plaza steps, out of sight. Fanny and I entered the park, where I stood inert with the sun on my face, watching her happily sniff a number of other dogs’ arseholes.
Ten minutes later, we bumped into them again. I’d elected to head back home via the bakery, when there they both were, lurking conspiratorially around a corner. The pretty girl marched straight up to me in her yoga pants.
“Oh, hello, again,” I said, addressing her in Spanish.
She stamped a furious foot against the pavement. “You are beautiful with a beautiful body!”
Fanny proceeded to lick the girl’s exposed ankle. The girl didn’t flinch.
“Eh?” I said.
“My friend wants to have sex with you,” explained the girl with coke bottle glasses.
I gazed back at the pretty girl and she nodded, grinning like an idiot. “Possibly a threesome?” she said, gesturing to her friend like a game show model showing off a prize fridge-freezer.
I gazed back at her friend, who shook her head. A little embarrassedly, I thought.
“Are you German?” she asked.
“We thought you were German. Or maybe South African.”
“Relax,” said the hot girl, gripping my bicep. “I will teach you to speak Spanish. Give me your number.”
“I don’t know it,” I said.
She wedged her hand into the pocket of my tennis shorts, pulling out my iPhone before handing it to me. “Open it.”
I did as I was told, and she snatched it from my hand. For a second, I thought I was being mugged. But instead, the girl opened up my contacts folder, found my card, and took a photo of my number with her phone.
Clever, I thought.
“There,” she said, handing me my phone back. “Now we are friends.”
She grinned idiotically again. “For now.”
Two days later, I was sitting at my desk, staring at an empty Word document, when Fanny trotted into the room and sat on my foot. She started to whine.
“What is it?” I asked. “Can’t you see I’m trying to work?”
The whining mounted in volume and a pathetic, pleading expression came across her cottony white face.
I closed the lid on my laptop. “Fine, you win,” I sighed, secretly grateful for the excuse to abandon my creative efforts and get outside.
We were crossing Plaza Francia, Fanny snuffling contentedly alongside me, when I heard my name being called out. I looked up to see the pretty girl from the other day. She was wearing the same pair of cloud grey yoga pants. She zigzagged through some stationary traffic, waving like a cheerleader.
“You never called me,” I said flirtatiously.
One of her dark eyebrows lifted, and she waggled an index finger back and forth. Then she pulled a phone out of her rucksack. “Look. See?” I stared at the photo she’d taken two days earlier of my phone. The day before meeting her, I’d dropped the phone against a kerbstone, smashing its screen. It was impossible to see my number.
“Fine, I forgive you,” I said, and she did that thing with her lip again.
An important idea presented itself to me. “Maybe you should give me your number?”
Her expression changed. “I’ll give you my number after you come and have sex with me,” she said.
The thing to do was act unshaken and make her feel that she was no different to every other woman I’d met that day. “First of all,” I said, “what’s your name?”
She stamped her foot again, making Fanny recoil. “Who cares what my name is?” she shouted. “My name doesn’t matter. We go to a hotel now and we have sex. This moment is everything. Names don’t matter.”
“But you know mine,” I reminded her. “You have me at a disadvantage.”
“Alright, alright,” she huffed. “My name is… Alex.”
I didn’t believe her, but she also didn’t strike me as a person with whom it was wise to argue. “Delighted to meet you, Alex,” I said.
The three of us strolled together in easy silence for a few metres, then Alex sprang forwards like a Maori warrior doing a Haka dance. Turning to face me, she had a wild look on her full face. Before I knew what was happening, she grabbed me by the hips, digging her nails into my skin. Whirling in circles at our feet, Fanny began to yap excitedly. I plunged over her lead, my forehead colliding with Alex’s shoulder. Aiding me upright, Alex thrust her hands under my T-shirt to stroke my chest and tease my nipples.
“I love you,” she cooed. “I love you. I love you. I love you. You are beautiful. I want we have sex. I want sex so much. I want sex. I want sex.”
My eyes strayed to a nearby stone bench, upon which a group of elderly women were enjoying the late afternoon sun. One of them flashed me the thumbs up, reminding me of Alex’s strange little friend on the day we first met. I forced a smile, before whisking Alex behind a largish bush that Fanny always stopped to pee on.
I’d no idea how these things worked, especially in Argentina. After several minutes of fruitlessly skirting around the subject, I gave up and said, “Listen, no offence, but are you a whore?”
Alex didn’t say yes. She also didn’t say no. What’s more, she mentioned US dollars. Three hundred of them, to be exact.
Now I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “But… you are so pretty…”
Which was true. She had an oval face with wide cheekbones and a body made to model sports bras.
“I know it,” she said. “So what?”
Which seemed a good point.
“I want three hundred dollars,” she continued, matter-of-factly, “for sex in a hotel.”
I needed to stall for time, so I said, “Well, I don’t have three hundred dollars on me, obviously, so…”
“Go and get it,” Alex said testily. Which, again, threw me for a loop.
She had an answer for everything. When I tried explaining that I wasn’t accustomed to situations of this kind, that things were moving too fast for me, that in my world it is customary to go for dinner or drinks or something first, before doing the Devil’s dance, she said, “We go for dinner and drinks after sex. First, sex in a hotel. Then dinner and drinks. I don’t want a drink now. I want sex. With you. In a hotel.”
It was impossible to argue, but I tried. Alex rolled her eyes. Then she spun on her heels and disappeared around the corner, humming a tune. Fanny and I followed.
By the time we caught up with her, Alex was sitting at the foot of a statue featuring four topless bas-reliefs in bronze. Her flat little nose was buried in a book. Fanny and I took a seat alongside her, but she went on reading, pretending we weren’t there. I eyeballed the book’s title, translating it into English: Soul Healing: Releasing burdens. Restore what one day was broken (The Voice of Your Soul). Fanny exhaled resignedly, resting her chin on one of the statue steps.
The afternoon sun was low and hot. Alex continued reading. I stared trancelike into space, wondering what I was doing. Fanny raised her eyes up at me, clearly wondering the same thing. Alex began highlighting every single passage in her book with a luminous marker pen. Now I wondered what she was doing. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that highlighting the entire text defeated the purpose of the exercise.
Instead, I said, “Look, I’m the kind of a man who has a girlfriend. I’m not looking for a one-night stand that costs three hundred dollars.”
I didn’t know if there was any truth to this, but it seemed the thing to say.
A gleam entered Alex’s eye. “I can be your girlfriend,” she said. “But after sex. First sex, then girlfriend.”
It sounded like bullshit to me, but out of nowhere, the gleam in Alex’s eye melted into a tear. I felt something stir in my heart.
Alex rested her open book on one of her shapely thighs, laying her hands over mine. “I love you and your body and your sex and your money,” she said, looking like she was about to cry. “That’s my problem. That’s my life. It’s not your problem.”
I wasn’t experienced enough to know quite what she meant. But I wondered if maybe she was in trouble. A strange feeling came over me.
“Listen,” I said, “I don’t want to be indelicate, but…”
“Well, maybe your life doesn’t need to be like that. That is to say, maybe your life can change. Maybe I can help you change your life.”
I can’t say what I was thinking exactly. But it was probably something about me being her saviour; her white knight arrived from a foreign land to save her soul. After all, I thought, she can’t enjoy sleeping with thousands of gross men in fleapit hotel rooms for three hundred dollars an hour—can she?
I smiled at her the way I’d seen NGO workers smile at muck-smeared children in slums. Alex gave me the finger.
“Oh,” I said, feeling extremely foolish. Alex shook her head exasperatedly, like she was dealing with a castrated cretin with no money. Then, in a lightning flash, she dug a hand into her rucksack, pulling out a king-size banana.
I regarded her with wonder as she deftly peeled the fruit’s skin, licked its tip with a long pink tongue, then gobbled the elongated soft flesh in a way that left nothing to the imagination, her eyes glued all the while upon my loins. Fanny was half-asleep at my ankles, missing the show. I tried opening my mouth to say something semi-erotic, but no sound came out.
Alex suddenly got all maternal, patting my head, stroking my hair, telling me that I was special, not like the other Johns, and that everything was going to be quite alright, I’d see. She started reading to me from her book, and it was all I could do not to suck my thumb and drift off into slumberland.
“I love God,” Alex told me in a seductive whisper. “I love God and God loves me. Nothing is a coincidence. Like me, you are a beautiful child of God, but you must only ever have positive thoughts. If you believe good things happen, Dominic, then good things will happen.”
By this point, I was entirely at her mercy. Her long lean legs were wrapped around mine. She smelled like chewy sweets. She clutched my elbow, my wrist. She laid a clammy palm against my check, caressing my earlobe with a fingertip. “I want sex in a hotel!” she howled. Only now with a faint laugh in her voice.
I admired the hazy spatter of freckles across her nose and cheekbones, as her expression swung madly between light-hearted and deadly serious. She knew we weren’t going to any hotel, but she was giving up her afternoon for me. For free.
“I should pay you,” I said.
She looked me in the eyes, drawing away slightly. “For what?”
“For…” I tried to think. “Your time.”
All of a sudden, Alex seemed like a little girl. Her shoulders slumped, and for the first time I noticed that her running shoes were off-brand. Also, there was a gaping hole in the crotch of her yoga pants.
A portrait entered my mind. Her pimp. Big, thick-necked, tattooed. Violent.
“I thought we is friends,” Alex said in broken English, packing away her book.
Fanny stirred, shaking off her sleepiness. “We were,” I said. “We are!”
There was a silence. “We could be friends,” Alex said, in Spanish again. “We should be friends. But we can’t be friends.”
“Why not?” I asked, but I knew the answer.
The three of us rose to our feet unsteadily. “I’ll walk with you up the hill,” Alex said. “Then we say goodbye.”
“Do you have work?” I said, immediately regretting the question.
Alex’s mouth twisted into a disquieting pout. A shiver ran down my spine. Halfway up the winding slope, she sprang in front of me again, exciting Fanny. “We can’t be friends,” she said, “because you would have to pay me to go out with you for dinner and drinks and Spanish lessons.”
Her hand strayed up to my ear, which she proceeded to tickle. “Well, what kind of friendship would that be?” she asked. Then she swung her rucksack around so that it rested upon her breasts. Reaching inside, she pulled out three different smartphones. My eyes widened.
“Uno de estos es para “influencer”,” she said, as if that clarified matters.
Then she gave me one of her numbers.
“What should I do with it?” I asked, and she shrugged, zipping up her rucksack.
Her eyes met mine. “Dominic, when you pay for sex, you commit to that relationship—do you understand? When you pay to go to bed with someone, it means you like them a lot. What do you want? You want to sit around in parks, getting to know me. That means you aren’t sure about me. You don’t like me enough.”
“I do like you,” I said.
“Good, then we go to a hotel,” Alex said. “You see? Now, you aren’t sure. Maybe you don’t like me that much. I love sex. I love you. Do you love me? I don’t think so.”
I said nothing. She kissed my cheek, before fluttering her fingers at me and walking away. Fanny and I stood for a moment, watching her sashay up the avenue. I hoped she would turn and look back at us, but she didn’t.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about the book Alex had been reading. “Gratitude awakens the universe but forgiveness unleashes its power,” it said on the cover. What?
At 2:30a.m., Alex called my phone. I didn’t answer.
The following day, I met my American friend Noah for coffee in Palermo. I told him about my potential new friend Alex, and he said, “Where have you been, you jackass? Chicks like her, who use their looks to make extra money from sex, are a dime a dozen in Buenos Aires. They’re known as “gatos”, which is different to a “puta”, somehow. Don’t ask me how. I’ve only been here eight years. This “Alex”, as you call her, is probably an engineering student with a million sugar daddies around town.”
“So, she and I can’t be friends?” I asked, lowering my eyes as I stirred my espresso with a tiny spoon.
“Never,” Noah said sharply. Then he slammed his palm against the table. “Are you kidding me? Dude, you really need to be more careful. A chick like that will rob you blind. Or her brothers or her cousins or whoever will. It’s a set-up, can’t you see that? She’s hot, so she has no difficulty picking up a naïve chump like you in the street. She tells you she loves you and that you’re the most beautiful man she’s ever seen and all that crap. Then she lures you to a nearby hotel, where two enormous guys with wrenches are waiting in the bathroom. If you don’t give them what they want—bang—they kill you.”
There was something about his worldview that I didn’t like. “I’m not so sure,” I said. “I think Alex and I had a real connection.”
Noah pulled a face. “Man, you are such a putz. You’re lucky I’m your friend, to save you from these honey traps. Jesus, sometimes I think I’m your guardian fucking angel, sent here from Miami just to keep schmucks like you alive.”
“Well, in future,” I said peevishly, “don’t bother.”
“Oh, OK,” Noah said, emptying a packet of sugar into his cappuccino. “So long as you’re not being melodramatic about it.”
Two days later, mid-afternoon, Fanny and I were walking through Plaza Francia when my phone lit up with three messages, all from Alex. The first was a photograph of a rose. The second read, “Dime amor que queres.” The third, “Escribime solo cuando quieras sexo o fotos.” Which means, “Write to me only when you want sex or photos.”
I replied, “OK.”
Alex thanked me, in Spanish. She even called me “amigo.”