It began with an awkward phone call: "Would you like to, um, go bowling with me?"
"Go... uh... bowling. Would you like to bowl with me? I'll pay for everything, of course."
"You just want to go bowling?" She was incredulous.
"Kind of like a sweet, you know, all-American date," I said, a nervous cramp in my chest.
"Yeah, I'll go bowling with you. What time do you want to go?"
So it was set. My first date with a prostitute would be at a bowling alley in west Broward. We could talk about whatever she wanted. Do whatever she felt like doing. As long as it didn't involve anything even close to sex.
It had to be one of the weirder propositions she'd heard. Call it some sort of half-baked sociological experiment: What happens when you take a hooker on a regular date? What happens when you share a walk on the beach or a piece of pizza instead of, oh, something that ends in job?
And that's why, at the Don Carter Tamarac Lanes, during the third frame of the second bowling game, Sophia the prostitute is telling me about the time she went out on a fetish call and got kidnapped and held hostage for three days.
"He was spanking me, having a good time, when all of a sudden he like freaked out and pulled out his gun and started saying a bunch of crazy stuff," she says as she lifts her pink bowling ball from the return. "He kept telling me he was going to take me to Vegas. He kept saying I couldn't be too bruised up for Vegas."
While she was held hostage, her driver called, trying to convince the man to let her go. "I pretty much felt like I was going to die," Sophia says, standing in blue and red bowling shoes. "He lived in an apartment in one of those really tall buildings in Miami right next to where the Heat plays. I could look out the window at all the people coming and going, and I wondered if I was ever going to get out of there."
She threw her ball down the lane. Three pins went down.
On our first call, we agreed to meet at the bowling alley on a Friday evening. She called me "Baby" and "Sweetie" in a throaty voice.
I got Sophia's number from a post on Craigslist's erotic services page. Her ad boasted that she can "provide the ultimate gfe [girlfriend experience]" and that she was "willing to try anything, Just Ask!" Beneath the text was a grainy photo of her in what looked like a motel room, in a sexy pose in front of a mirror. She had long, dark hair and shiny skin.
She told me she was fine with going bowling and appearing in my story, "but," she said, "you know my time is money." We agreed that I would bring $100. I'd pay for our date and give her whatever was left over.
The sun is beginning to set when she arrives in a dirty white Dodge sedan. We introduce ourselves just inside the front door of the bowling alley.
"So what exactly are we supposed to be doing here?" she asks.
"Honestly, I have no idea what the hell I'm doing," I say in a failed attempt to alleviate her worries. "Let's just try to have a good time."
She's 5-foot-2, with dark hair and a gentle face. She has bright, brown, curious eyes. Her upper teeth are covered by a shiny silver grill with dice carved into the teeth. She's wearing flip-flops, a short denim skirt, a brown tank top that clings to her buxom figure, and a gray hooded sweatshirt with several images of Bob Marley across the front and back. She doesn't seem to be under the influence of any strong narcotics. She looks like a slightly older, slightly rounder version of the photo in her ad.
I try not to wonder how many men she's seen this week.
We pick out our balls. She finds a bright pink one that feels comfortable in her small hands. She wonders if the ball might hurt her long acrylic nails — at the end of each finger, she has a twisting Technicolor spectrum embossed over a white background. Eager to impress, I go for a colorful, 16-pound ball. I pick it up, then graciously put it down for an 11.
At the shoe counter, she realizes she's forgotten socks. For $2.50, I buy her the finest white socks Don Carter offers, out of a vending machine.
We find our lane and she slips on her size-seven, suede bowling shoes. As we attempt to enter our names into the electronic scorekeeper, we discuss how infrequently we both bowl.
Sophia rolls first. Gutter ball. She turns around and breaks into a shy grin, slightly embarrassed. On the second roll, she knocks over one pin.
"That's really the hardest pin to get," I joke.
She smiles without opening her mouth.
She's from Tampa originally, she says, and goes back and forth across the state a lot. She's 27, though she tells most of her clients she's 22. Her real name isn't Sophia. It also isn't Trinity, another name she uses.
"I keep thinking I'm going to break one of these things," she says as she examines the nails on her right hand. She gets them done every two weeks, for $60. It's only been a week since her last visit, so she has to be extracautious.
I ask her to tell me about herself. "Well, I'm a Sagittarius, and I like long walks on the beach," she says, imitating the tone of a dating-game contestant. She says she doesn't really get out much.
Neither of us has 30 pins by the fifth frame. So we have at least one thing in common: We both suck at bowling.
Her favorite thing in the world to do, she says, is to make homemade, hand-rolled sushi. For the first time, she's talking directly to me.
"My grandmother came here from Hiroshima," she says. They never spent a lot of time together, but every so often, her grandmother would teach young Sophia the craft of the tuna roll. She tilts her head slightly as she imagines herself cutting and arranging raw fish.
At the end of the first game, she has 40 and I have 67.
Things can only get better from here.
This wasn't entirely my brilliant idea. I'd seen a photo-essay book titled I Date a Hooker in which a New Jersey man named Jeff Fischer took a bunch of prostitutes on sort-of regular dates. Then he snapped photos, including copious depictions of himself making out with them, which, frankly, is just as gross as it sounds. I wanted to talk to Fischer about his raunchy project, so I asked his publisher, Blue Q Books, if I could set up an interview with the author.
"The guy who actually dated the prostitutes?" asks a Blue Q rep. "I wouldn't even know where to begin tracking him down."
So I was on my own.
I had uneasy feelings about offering any kind of remuneration for our encounters, so after seeing Sophia, I resolved not to pay any more hookers just to date me. I was going to call and ask the women politely if they would join me for ice cream or to go to the aquarium.
The first place I turned, naturally, was to the back pages of this very publication. I started dialing numbers from ads with photos of women who, for whatever reason at the time, I felt might be more likely to indulge their intellectual inquisitiveness — or at least humor me. I called girls with ads that said: "New to town! Show me around!" "Because I'm worth it!" "Just broke up with my boyfriend!"
I got turned down. Cold. Every time. "Hi. I'm a reporter working on a story about dating local escorts. There wouldn't be anything sexual, just a game or two of miniature golf. And I'll pay for this date, of course, but I really don't have any money to give you for — hello? Hello?"
After two days of ego-smashing rejections from prostitutes up and down the tricounty area, I decided to ditch the idea of enticing hookers to date me for free. My new pitch: "I've got $100, and I want to play miniature golf with an escort."
Most women still weren't interested. "I prefer something a little more intimate," one told me.
Finally, I found Britney. Her ad said: "MIDWESTERN BRITNEY/Need to pay off student loans. $275/hr." The photo was of a surfer-blond woman with smooth, golden skin.
Over the phone, we agreed to meet at Boomer's in Dania Beach for an afternoon date and a winsome round of minigolf. When I arrive, Britney is removing wads of fast-food wrappers from the back seat of her Camry. She's tall and blond but rougher than her photo. She's wearing a blue Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt, a white linen skirt, and Ed Hardy flip-flops on her exceptionally large feet. She never takes the Louis Vuitton bag off her shoulder or the Chanel sunglasses off her head.
I find myself wondering what kind of guy would pay almost $300 for an hour with this woman. Then I feel guilty.
We get our putters and balls — she picks a purple ball; I pick orange — and make our way out to the course. I stop for a scorecard and a pencil. "Nah, we don't need to keep score," she says. "Let's just play. Didn't you want to ask me some questions or something? And I'm going to need my donation up front."
I hand over the $80 I have left after paying for two rounds of golf.
My first question: Why didn't any of the girls I called want to take an afternoon off and go play miniature golf?
"Escorts don't do anything for free," she explains as we line up our balls at the beginning of the first hole. "Who's to say you aren't some guy just like all the other weirdos out there but your role-play fantasy is to play a reporter doing an interview?"
Hmmm. That's someone's fantasy?
Nobody wants to get ripped off and give anyone anything for free when she could be getting something, she says. "Time is money in this business."
At the second hole, she tells me how she came to her current station in life: She moved to Florida from Nebraska for college. She wanted to get out of the cold and live near the beach. Apparently, she did not consult a map before choosing a school in Lakeland, which is several hours from the water. In college, she was a business major, and she just graduated in May. During her senior year, she signed up for a website called SexyJobs.com, an adult employment site that matches men and women with pornographers and agents. She started with porn because it enabled her to work as little as twice a month and still pay all of her expenses.
Now 22, she moved to South Florida to work with a porn agency but says the money ran out quickly. "There is a lot of money for girls when they first start in porn," she tells me, trying to putt through a snaking corridor of artificial turf. "I could make $900 in a few hours. But once a girl has appeared in a few places, they don't want to pay her as much, unless you're some superstar like Jenna Jameson."
With $60,000 in student loans coming due soon, she says she needed more money. She looked through hundreds of escort ads, gauging how much she might be worth. "I set a high price because I thought I could get it." She averages four calls a day, working six days a week.
A higher price also means a generally higher quality of clientele. Most of her calls are from doctors and lawyers. They're the ones who can afford that kind of cash, she says as she scoots her ball casually with her foot.
"Hey, that's cheating," I say with a playfully stern tone.
"Yeah, I'm a cheater," she says in a dry, humorless voice.
Sometimes she tells people she's from Kansas instead of Nebraska because Kansas sounds more innocent and Midwestern, she says.
Even if she isn't having fun playing minigolf, rushing through each hole, Britney doesn't seem to mind sharing her wealth of professional expertise. She takes the tone of a college professor as she explains some of the call-girl terminology. Ads often include what look like alphanumeric codes: GFE, PSE, DATY, BBBJ, K9, DFK. Those are all options, she says, like a menu.
GFE stands for "girlfriend experience," she says, which means the escort can offer more than just a dirty deed. A GFE might include kissing on the mouth, for example, or role-playing. The GFE is the promise to at least appear to be enjoying the company and not just the money.
PSE is code for "porn-star experience." A step up in intensity from a GFE, a PSE can include dynamic positioning, moaning, and the general showmanship of adult cinema. The PSE must never be mistaken for "Greek" or "a trip to Greece," which indicates the prostitute is willing to engage in anal intercourse.
DATY stands for "Dining at the Y," an indication the woman will receive oral sex. "I guess because a woman with her legs spread kind of looks like a Y," she says, leaning on her putter, tilting her head as she thinks.
A BBBJ is a "bareback blowjob," as opposed to a CBJ, a covered blowjob (with a condom).
LFK is light French kissing. DFK is deep French kissing.
I ask if anyone has ever asked her to do something she didn't want to do.
She says no, "but I'm ready to explain that I won't do something I don't want to do." Where exactly she will draw that line remains a mystery.
At the 11th hole, we debate whether we may have skipped the eighth hole. We did. Britney makes it clear we are not going back.
By hole 13, we are discussing what she'd like to do with her life. "I really like economics and marketing," she says. "I'd like to go back to school and get an MBA and maybe a master's in economics."
"What are some of your favorite economic theories?" I ask, hoping I might be able to show her that I know words like Keynesian.
"I like more of the micro than the macro," she says. "Like price control and things like that." One day, she would like to find a way for governments to pay for all the social programs without having to raise taxes.
"No, not yet," she says as we approach the 17th hole. "See, financially I'm a conservative, but socially I'm a Democrat. I haven't even made up my mind on who I'm voting for."
Wow, a real-life swing voter.
Still thinking about economics (and still trying to work in Keynesian), I ask, "What's your dream job?"
"I'd like to work for the government one day," she says, smiling at the thought of a prostitute fashioning economic policy. "Secretly, I really want to be the next Alan Greenspan."
The 18th hole consists of two parts. First, players are to hit their balls under a small cottage, then watch as they pop out a few feet below, near the hole. Britney hits her ball under the house, lifts her putter, and heads for the door.
"I think we're supposed to finish down there, right?" I point to the landing where her purple ball is resting a few feet from the hole marked "18."
"No, I think this is it," she says. Before I can ask if she'd like anything to drink, she's out the door, heading for her car, "donation" in hand.
I stand outside Maggie Moo's in Fort Lauderdale for almost an hour waiting to eat ice cream with Mira. (If there is one thing to be learned from dating prostitutes, it's that they are not very punctual.) Finally, she is dropped off by a man driving a scratched-up black SUV.
She's older than the other women, in her early 50s. I'm surprised. She looks more like a school teacher than a prostitute. She's black, has a stern jaw, and never removes her red-framed sunglasses. She wears a dress that goes down to her ankles and has her hair in thin dreadlocks that cover her shoulders. I wonder what her clients think when they first see her.
Her hand is damp when we shake. I grimace a little.
"Well, what kind of ice cream do you feel like?" I ask, trying to cut through the silence.
Inside, she orders a single scoop of butterscotch with cherries on top. I have Maggie's Fudge with Oreo crumbs mixed in. One of the boys behind the counter pauses as he stares at us, clearly confused. He decides it's better not to ask. We sit in the shade outside.
"Tell me about yourself, Mira."
She's slow to speak, thoughtful. "I'm going through a time of change," she says in a patient tone. She's been in the business only for a year, she says, since she lost her job at an insurance company.
I ask vague questions, hoping she'll tell me about her life as a prostitute. But we never really broach the subject. Instead, she tells me about her mother, who died a few weeks ago from Alzheimer's. She was 80. "She was such a strong woman her entire life," Mira says, sliding a sliver of ice cream onto her tongue. "Seeing her like that, it wasn't her. She didn't recognize anyone. She was ready to pass."
Mira moved here from New York a few years ago to take care of her mother when she first got sick. Medical bills have been so overwhelming for so long, she says. "I sing and pray when times are hard. That's all you can do, really."
Twenty minutes into the date, I can't help but notice I'm sitting across from a woman nearly twice my age, listening to her talk about her dead mother. I'm trying to be attentive, but it's hard. And my ice cream is almost gone.
She's applying for office jobs every week, she says, but she's stuck. For the kind of jobs she wants — and feels qualified for — applicants need a good credit rating. "I've been out of a job for a year, so my credit has gone down," she explains, pushing a cherry with her plastic spoon. "I can't get good credit without a job, and I can't get a job without good credit."
Conversation wanes after we finish the ice cream. She gives me some tips to better my FICO score. This time, when it comes time to pay her, I am sort of relieved. Kidnapping and covered blowjobs in a jejune setting I can handle, but death and credit scores?
I thank her for the date and wish her well in her job search.
Back at the bowling alley that first Friday night, Sophia unzips her Bob Marley sweatshirt, revealing a large tattoo of two linked wedding bands on the left side of her chest. Beneath one of the rings is a man's name.
"This is a mistake I made a long time ago," she said. "That's my ex. It's a long story."
So you were married?
When she takes off her sweatshirt, I notice two large, oblong scars on her right arm. I'm afraid to ask.
It's time for the second game, and we take our first few turns. "So, tell me about your life," I say.
"Oh, my real life is crazy. If I told you, you wouldn't even believe me."
"Well, I was kidnapped."
"When? By who, er, uh, whom?"
This game is much slower; we take long pauses between turns as she elaborates on the kidnapping saga. It was a spanking fetish call to Miami, she says. She noticed something odd immediately. "Honestly, he kind of seemed like he was a gay guy," she says. "He was very feminine, and he had this cute little dog. But I meet a lot of strange people, ya know? Who am I to judge?"
The session started out all right, she says. Just some straightforward spanking. But then he started whacking her more aggressively. Harder. Too hard. Then he stopped. He started apologizing. He told her that he didn't want her to be too bruised for their trip to Las Vegas. Then he abruptly shifted tone. He pulled out a handgun.
"What are you supposed to do? I was like, 'I don't want to go to Vegas. Why are you doing this?' Then he'd be really nice to me for a while. He wouldn't let me go, but we'd eat and talk, and he wouldn't hit me. Then out of nowhere, he would start screaming again. He told me if I was thinking about running that he knew where I lived."
He beat her on and off from Friday afternoon to Monday morning. "It was like that scene in Silence of the Lambs," she says, raising the pitch of her voice to match the kidnapping victim from the movie. "I was like, 'Don't make me hurt your dog, mister.' "
Sophia's driver told the man he'd called the cops — which of course he hadn't. But the ruse worked.
"Probably the weirdest part of the whole thing," she says, "as he was letting me go, like right at his door, he went to hand me his gun, like he was telling me, 'It's a hard world out there — watch out for yourself.' But right as he was handing it to me, he like remembered that he had been beating me for a couple of days and he shouldn't exactly be handing me a gun right then."
Because she was so traumatized, she says, she didn't see any clients for a week. Except one. "I had a regular, a psychiatrist, who said he had to see me." When she told him what happened, he insisted she recount the event in exhaustive detail. He even wanted to know what floor they were on. "That's the kind of thing he likes. He's really crazy."
She's seen this psychiatrist on and off for more than a year. He's married.
She estimates that about 75 percent of the guys she sees are married. She explains that sometimes the men come to her, an "incall," and sometimes she goes to them, an "outcall." She gets at least five outcalls a week to go to a client's place of work, often an office or garage. "There are a lot of, like, auto mechanics who are working on a hard job and call me up for an outcall. When I get there, he takes a break and we go into a back room or something. Then he goes right back to work. That's a few times a week." An outcall will cost $100 to $200.
I ask what her weirdest call was, aside from the kidnapping. And the reporter who wanted to go bowling.
"This one guy had a balloon fetish," she says, the long, thin kind clowns use to make balloon animals. He wanted to watch as she had sex with a balloon; then he wanted to have sex with her in a room full of balloons. "Different strokes for different folks," she says, shaking her head. She tells me she's willing to do just about anything if the money is right. "I'd rather pee on somebody or something for $300 than have to have three regular calls over an entire day."
I can't bring myself to ask if she's ever turned anyone down.
Halfway through the second game, Sophia is, for the most part, in a chipper mood. She's laughing at my silly jokes. She's pretending to be bothered when she misses all the pins. She flashes her silver smile every time she has a good roll. I keep noticing, though, that every so often, she sees a family or a happy couple on another lane and disappears briefly from our conversation. She stares distantly at nothing.
Then, as quickly as it comes, the moment is gone and she's playful again, telling me a few things she thinks most people don't know about prostitutes.
One occupational hazard, she says, is cheap men — guys who want to haggle over the "donation" all night. One particularly odd phenomenon she's noticed: The men who ask her to use a strap-on on them — guys who want to be pegged — are the cheapest clients. "They always want to negotiate the price or tell me they only have so much," she says. She shrugs and shakes her head. "I don't know what it is, but it's like every time."
In the second game, she bowls a 67 and I bowl a 99. "Almost 100," she says with a laugh. The dice on her grill sparkle as she smiles. "That's always the hardest one to get."
I buy two Cokes with straws at the bar, and we walk to the other end of the bowling alley to the arcade. Over a game of air hockey, she tells me about leaving her pimp. "I really only got with him because he could teach me how to post on Craigslist," she says, her eyes following the ricocheting puck. "So I got with him, I got that knowledge for myself — something I can take with me — and I moved on."
He showed her the ins and outs of Craigslist her first night on the job. She learned that you can use multiple email accounts to put up more than the five allotted posts a day. And that the successful girls are the ones who keep the posts going all day. He also showed her other sites where men cruise for call girls; some allow men to review and rate women. "It's important to work the internet constantly."
She says she stayed with her pimp for two weeks. When she dumped him, he chased after her, waving a handgun. She got away.
After two games of air hockey, we take a short stroll around the arcade. Sophia asks me about my life.
"So what's it like being a writer?" she asks.
"You get to meet a lot of interesting people," I say.
"Yeah, I like meeting new people," she says.
Then Sophia spots the claw machine. She puts her small hands against the glass as she peers in at the stuffed animals. There are royal bluebirds with orange beaks and cute, furry monkeys and cartoonish elephants. "I'm like a pro at this," she says. She fidgets with the joystick and practices pushing the red button that activates the claw.
"Want to give it a shot?" I ask.
When I reach into my pocket for money, she stops me. "I'm going to win you that lion," she says, pointing at a stuffed golden lion about the size of a football. It has big blue eyes.
She puts in 50 cents of her own and gives it a try. The claw lifts the lion slightly but comes up empty. Another 50 cents. Another nudge. Another 50. This time, the claw hooks one of the lion's legs, but it still isn't enough to pull up the stuffed animal.
"Don't worry about it," I tell her. "These machines are scams. They layer everything so nothing will ever come up."
"I can do it," she says and loads another 50.
"And the claw's too loose. It can't hold most of the prizes."
"The more money you put in it, the tighter it gets," she says.
As she pumps quarters into the machine, trying to pull up that gold lion, she tells me how one day she'd like to go back to school and maybe take classes to be a paramedic or a nurse. For most of her childhood, she was raised by her great-grandmother in Tampa. But then, when Sophia was 17, her great-grandmother got sick. With nobody else in the family willing or able to take care of her, Sophia dropped out of school to stay at home. She says that those months taking care of her dying great-grandmother might have been the best, most fulfilling time of her life. Her dream is to work in a nursing home someday, taking care of human beings when they need it the most.
At some point, she says, she'd like to be a square. She wants to get married and have kids. She hopes to leave behind everything about this life, but she knows every day that her future husband leaves for work, she'll wonder what he's really doing.
Each time she takes a turn with the claw, she pulls the lion a little farther. Her brown eyes widen as it looks like this might be the time. But on every single try, no matter how close she comes, the claw lets go of the fuzzy lion and she watches as it drops back to its original location.
We walk out toward the parking lot. What had been a colorful, late-afternoon sky when we entered has turned into the dark of night. I can tell we've come to the uncomfortable moment when I am supposed to give her cash. I pull out all the money I have left: $65. I feel like maybe it isn't enough. Then again, maybe it's too much — how horrible could bowling with me really have been?
Sophia thanks me. She checks her phone and asks me if I can give her a ride. She directs me to a La Quinta, where she says she lives and hosts her incalls. "It's only $88 a night, and it's pretty nice in there."
She says she had a great time. She calls me Sweetie again.
I drive away wondering if she's thinking about that stuffed lion — still stuck in the machine, lodged snugly in a world of stuffed birds and cotton elephants.