spy on the wall part 2

by: Tara Ruttenberg

now it’s day two: i show up to the house right on time, catching a glimpse of the sunset over the Jaco skyline, finding myself annoyed that the chef i'm working with hasn't yet arrived. i decide to wait in the car, turning up Bob Dylan's Biograph (disc five) to calm my nerves - there's no way in hell i'm going in there alone; not after what happened last night. twenty minutes later i phone my boss to find out if the chef is on his way. he reassures me that he'll be there soon, that i should go ahead inside and get set up; that "there's nothing to be afraid of. these are good guys, i talked to them this morning and made sure they know not to bother you". i exhale a sigh of relief and the Nicaraguan guard lets me in the padlocked gate.

i knock gingerly before letting myself in the double French doors, slowly peering around the corner to make sure i'm not interrupting anything i really don't want to see. i decided on the drive over that tonight i was all business: i'm just going in, doing my job and getting out. no more phony smiles or forced conversation, even if it means sacrificing what promised to be a generous tip. Dr. Grabbyhands (formerly known as the friendly one) greets me first, welcoming me back and sitting up straight on the opposite side of the bar, his hands interlaced on the granite counter-top, gripping tightly his embarrassment from the night before: a chastised schoolboy now on his best behavior. "good," i think, "he got the memo from my boss: me, human being, no touchy-feely; those other women, hookers, pay to grope at leisure. everything respectfully in its separate place as it should be". i'm grateful that the mood feels a bit more mellow tonight, the women making themselves at home and the men more relaxed and fiddling with their iPhones instead of fondling their playmates; the common loss of interest when anticipation fades to boredom as the novelty wears off, a child's Christmas toys no longer shiny and new, rejected after being played with once or twice.

he begins telling me about their hungover day on the boat: "luckily, I caught a mahi early on or we'd be going to bed hungry tonight" he gloats, sarcastically playing the austere pauper we all know he’ll never be. "these other guys only caught a couple of tiny tuna!", he slaps mustache-ride on the back with a hearty chuckle. the women scurry about in their skimpy bikinis in the background, shivering as they enter the air conditioned house after emerging wet from the pool. the two guys begin asking me about myself as if to establish a tentative truce, mano-a-mano, this time feigning interest in my chosen area of study, which i tell them is sustainable economic development at the University for Peace. i smile back at their blank stares. "so what, is there more peace in the house now that you're here?" i brush it off and reach for my silver OM necklace for moral support; i'm used to that response by now, but it still doesn't feel very good. as a wealthy builder/developer back at home, the gentle giant perks up from his whiskey-induced afternoon siesta and makes a face, yet seems surprisingly intrigued: "but is that even actually possible? i mean, how would you even go about doing that - the whole sustainable development thing?" the million dollar question in my line of work - in any other scenario i might actually care to deliver an eloquent response, going into detail about promoting human dignity through individual self-realization and community solidarity, restoring access to the commons and creating a Marxist eco-socialist utopia where the money-grubbing capitalists like him would have already been overrun by the revolutionaries. instead, we start talking about urban agriculture and i mention some man-made land bridge over an interstate i saw in a photo online somewhere, as if that defined sustainable development in a nutshell. "if we can put a pool on the roof of an apartment building", he says, "we can sure as shit plant a garden up there". problem solved, he walks away; i was really getting through to this guy.

luckily, the 'girls' come back inside to relieve me from my nightmare and all eyes zoom in on eight giant mounds of silicone. i can't help but look over there too, i mean those things are a sight to behold. after round one of hors d'oeuvres and the women showing me their randomly scattered bruises from the pole last night, most of the group disappears to shower and dress for the evening, leaving me alone with Lucy, who looks more naturally beautiful now with her auburn hair pulled back loosely and wearing minimal make-up. i find her most interesting for some reason, since i noticed last night that she wasn't "chosen" to be with any of the guys one-on-one. i wondered if that hurt her feelings, being the odd woman left out of this morally questionable equation. i pondered why she wasn't selected by the men: is it because she projects an unwavering air of confidence and sophistication, oozing a sense of class and that 'i'm gonna make you work for it' vibe that the other women haven't yet mastered? might she not seem as approachable as Candy and the others who act warmer and more inviting right off the bat, as if they really care about you and truly enjoy kissing your wrinkly old lips and love it when you offensively slap their perfect ass a little harder than they’re generally comfortable with? i liked to think that maybe that was Lucy's sly M.O. - act unavailable, unapproachable and uninterested, scare them off so you still get paid for the weekend without having to go through with the whole penetration part. i thought it was clever and it just might work. but from the guys' perspective, when you're paying for it either way, why would it even matter? wouldn't you want the false challenge of conquering the one that plays harder to get, knowing full well that you make the rules because you wield the cash? or is it still all about the game even when you're paying top dollar, and rich men are still insecure men who feel threatened by a strong, confident woman, opting to prey on the easier victims instead? Especially if they purposely make themselves a bit smaller, appealing to your desired sense of manhood, making you feel good about yourself in the process. it satisfied me to think that was why Lucy wasn't picked, even if i was justifying it for my own personal self-validation.

embracing my spy-on-the-wall opportunity to get inside the head of a real high-end hooker - a woman close to my own age, maybe a year or so younger - i call on my inner warrior and get up the courage to ask her about herself, nonchalant as i refill her Diet Coke. she tells me she's from San Jose and doesn't enjoy travelling for work as often as she does. she compliments my Spanish as we chat like girlfriends meeting for a cup of tea; i'm flattered. despite referring to her work as a burn-out industry, she expresses hope that more jobs come together this month to help pay the bills; her daughter's school is expensive and the payments are due in February. "you wouldn't believe how many women are in our line of work", she confesses, "people you would never expect. like i was in Mexico City last year, and there's my manicurist - the woman who does my nails in San Jose - there she is sitting right there in the same room as me - in Mexico City! she was as surprised as i was. you wouldn’t believe it, but i get approached by girls coming up to me looking for work all the time. i help them out when i can".

"yeah, i know what you mean," i reply in my best i'd-do-anything-to-fit-in-right-now voice (i have no idea what she means), "life's expensive, and i imagine even more so when you're a mother trying to pay the bills". she nods and pushes away her bowl of freshly caught mahi ceviche. did i actually pull it off? did i speak real life hooker to a real-life hooker? i was beaming.

it was more than that, though, and i let myself acknowledge it later. i wasn't playing a role, talking down to someone i perceived as below me in some contrived social hierarchy. it wasn't that at all. instead, i had encountered a new friend in our brief conversation, a sister on this earth just trying to make a buck to pay for her daughter's education and support the lifestyle she had come to know as her own, the lifestyle society has taught her to want at all costs, even the most unthinkable. more inescapably terrifying, i caught a glimpse of myself in her eyes and for a second I was walking at least a step or two in her stiletto-moccasins, and i yearned for that connection with this sister-stranger i wanted to take by the hand and run with, out the fucking French doors, down the elitist hill of the concrete kingdom - free at last to be women and people and not objects and servants and slaves by what they’d have us believe is our own free will. we would get all the other women, too. we'd bring Candy and the Cubana and the breast feeding mother and the manicurist. then we'd swoop by the Beatle Bar and Hotel Del Rey and just round everybody up in a revolutionary raid of the entire Costa Rican sex-tourism industry. we'd form an all-women's workers' cooperative and home-school all the former prostitutes' fatherless kids and transform this mess starting right here and now. they don't own us, with their private jets and soul-numbing fancy liquor, high-powered, high-profile jobs, solid gold wedding rings and hundred-dollar bills they throw at us to guarantee we're at their beck and call forever. we are women! powerful in our own right, strong, sophisticated, warriors, for Christ's sake! come on, Lucy, you and me girl - we could do this! ready? NOW!

i start cutting limes into perfect little half-moon slices.