The Painted Prostitute
It was a hot August night, orange-brown leaves blew in the breeze as I waited on the steps of the Opera House. Like most nights, I wore a black coat and clunky boots. A sharp glance from Eliza told me to put my chocolate away, straighten up and look a little more willing if I wanted to attract any business. Straightening myself out, I waited for someone to approach me. Those nights were always difficult, I was often torn between conflicting emotions as I waited. Impatience, wanting the evening over with, yet dreading the familiar moment of closing a deal. I gazed on through the darkness, watching a couple stroll, hand-in-hand, along the cobbled street. As I stared, entranced by whatever it was that glued their hands together, a man, no more than twenty five, walked towards me. He was tall and thin, his features dark, his gaze intense. His hair was deep brown and stuck up on end as though he’d recently been electrocuted. His eyes bore into mine; I felt he knew me, like he had seen me without clothes before I had even undressed. But this wasn’t a man I had taken my clothes off for before. In fact, by his nervous disposition, I guessed he had never done this before. He was definitely more nervous than I was. He stood there, studying me intently.
‘Could you come back to mine?’ he asked, almost as though he was embarrassed. His eyes barely met my own, and yet that intense, hungry stare was still there. He seemed to be glaring hard at the ground.
It was almost comical and I had to fight with myself not to laugh.
‘No. I’m not supposed to.’ I regained my composure, glancing around for Marcel.
‘I’ll give you two hundred quid to come back with me,’ he said impatiently, almost under his breath. I could give one hundred to Marcel, as he expected, and keep one hundred for myself. I could afford to buy even more food than Marcel gave me; I could buy a warmer blanket than I had at home; I could buy a pair of shoes to wear in the day – comfy ones, or a pair bigger than the too-small boots I was wearing this evening. Then again, I dreaded to think of the dangers I would face if he found out. He would probably beat me, withhold my meals or worse, throw me out on the street. He would almost definitely find out. But, if I were to take the risk, and come home with the whole two hundred for him, maybe I’d be rewarded. I was still his favourite.
‘Let’s go’, I breathed, before I could change my mind. Taking my hand, he led me through the streets of Vienna, as though I was a younger sister, or a daughter. As though I was nothing to be ashamed of. He was a little jittery but I put that down to his nerves rather than to embarrassment over what others would think. He didn’t wrap his arm around me, or pull me close to him, resting my head in his stale armpit as some men did. We walked like that, his hand gently encasing mine, all the way. It was a weird feeling, I’m not sure how else to describe it. The cobbled streets beneath my feet were warm, as though they’d absorbed the heat of the day. Trees lined one side of the road like the soldiers that marched here in daytime; curved streetlamps lined the other.
‘What’s your name?’ I was taken aback. No other client had ever asked my name before. Not once.
‘Analiese’, I stammered, tasting the name on my tongue as though for the first time. Clean cut men in suits and bowler hats strolled by, and yet the man did not step away from me, or try to obscure me from view. More men, also in suits hurried past, their bowler hats pulled low to obscure their eyes, and I knew they were heading to the corner, to the Opera House. Some I even recognised from previous nights. Shit. If they told Marcel they’d seen me heading this way, in the opposite direction to the house, I’d be done for. I didn’t relax or stop looking around until we came to a stop in front of a long line of modest houses, cramped together and sweating in the late evening light.
Our destination was a house on the far end of the street. Its windows were curtained, its door black and peeling. From upstairs, a light shone and voices bickered about a cat and who’d fed it. We entered a narrow hallway, and I realised that the building was a shabby block of flats. The man located his key having anxiously fumbled in his pockets for a while, then led me through the door in to his bottom-floor living space. I thought that this man couldn’t be too bad. He was a first-timer, probably wouldn’t try anything funny. I guessed he’d probably get in and out without talking much and then let me go.
We went inside. The place was small, dark, and filled to the brim with paintings. Water colour canvases depicting skeletal men and women, often nude, littered the room. Dark, green hues forming severely shaped figures covered the walls. The little light which clawed its way through the drawn blinds made the figures in the paintings seem frightening, like zombies; half living, half not. They seemed garish, overbearing and huge, looking down from their tall mounts. Most overwhelming was the smell, alcoholic, pure, strong. I could smell turpentine and earth and wood.
‘Take off your coat, make yourself at home.’ I didn’t. ‘Would you like something to drink?’ I didn’t understand what was going on. This wasn’t usually how it went.
‘No thank you,’ I replied, unsure. The man asked me to undress, leaving only my socks on. I found the request unusual but I obliged. Always oblige. Beneath his paintings of fully formed women, my body seemed young, pale and very white; my breasts seemed smaller and more pointed than they had been the day before. I stood naked and shivering in the dark room and awaited further instruction. Without moving towards me, he asked me to sit on a blanket near the window. I did as I was told; I lay down; I waited. I waited with my eyes shut, imagining the bath I would take later, before wrapping myself up in bed, my arms wrapped around the stuffed bear I’d had since I was a child. But I felt no unclean, warm breath on my cheek, no bony fingers forcing themselves into me.
Looking up, I saw him at the other side of the room, pottering around with different sized tins. Paint. I watched the man mixing colours on a pallor, curious. It occurred to me that he was going to paint my body before fucking me.
‘Always oblige’ I breathed to myself. But when he sat down in front of a square cut of cardboard I understood –I was going to become one of the paintings that littered the small flat. A rush of emotion overcame me. Confusion; doubt; annoyance – wasn’t I good enough to fuck? Relief at the prospect of a night without sharing my body; and then pride, he thought I was pretty, or at least interesting enough, to paint. Self-conscious, I adjusted myself as I was instructed; my dark hair a tangled mess behind my head, my legs spread open. I could smell the paint, the water colours mixed in dark tones. Like smelling salts, they alerted my senses, woke me up as though from a dream, something unreal.
For the first time since I had started working with Marcel, I felt myself blush.