“Laila’s Escort Services…”

“I’ll see you when I come back next month, love.” Joe said as he shrugged on his jacket and wrapped a wool scarf around his neck. He was a smart dresser and Laila enjoyed his company. He always treated her like a lady and in addition to her body, he genuinely appreciated her sharp mind. Laila pulled on her red satin robe, her perky breasts stretched against the fabric and walked him to the door. “Stay warm, love.” she said fondly “I’ll see you soon” she added as he let himself out.

She stood by her floor to ceiling window and watched him drive away. She thought for a minute like she sometimes did after a session, how her life had taken such a different turn. She was an honors student in her previous life, destined for college with dreams of becoming an English and History professor. Teaching was in her blood. Her dad was revered by his students and they often came to visit him long after they had graduated. With her mother being stay-at-home, her dad was the only breadwinner in the family which meant they lived on the cusp of poverty. The education he proudly imparted to his students was his only wealth.

When it came time for her to go to college, she knew she would have to win a fully paid scholarship or figure out a way to pay for the tuition herself. The scholarship didn’t pan out so well since she had no sports accolades or any extra curricular skills to market. Volunteering at the neighborhood pound didn’t carry much weight. That only left option #2 – earning it herself. Her little hometown had always stifled her and she saw this as a opportunity to get out. If she could move to the town where she wanted to go to school, she could find a job there and help pay her way. That would be her out.

She moved to Allensville, which was 30 mins by bus from the McDermott College of Arts and got lucky when she found a one-room apartment above Frankie’s smoke shop. The apartment, if one could call it that was a little run down. Also based on the varied odors emanating from downstairs, she was pretty sure Frankie was selling a lot more than just cigarettes. She chose however to remain quiet about it. She was paying $600 in rent and  had no intention of jeopardizing her cushy arrangement as long as it didn’t impact her directly.

Every morning, she would walk the 20 odd steps down to the front of the store to collect the daily newspaper which she would then skim for job ads, looking for part-time ones that would allow her to attend classes during the day. There were fewer opportunities than she had imagined and most were for personal assistants or nannies which required daytime hours. She still hadn’t signed up for the classes either because she didn’t have enough to even pay for the first semester. She needed a job and she needed it fast!

One day as she trudged up the stairs to her apartment, newspaper under her arm, she saw a good looking man climbing down. She was surprised to see someone so well put together walk out of this dump. Usually Frankie’s establishment drew riffraff and people like her who were looking for cheap lodging. She looked up to see where he had come from and saw a face framing the door at the top of the stairs. Odd that she had never noticed anyone come in or out of that door. She actually had a neighbor, another girl and that kind of made her happy. She smiled at the face looking down at her and added cheerfully “Hi, my name is Maria. Boy am I glad to know someone else lives here. You’re brave. I would never let my boyfriend visit me at this dump.” she giggled. The face just continued to look at her and then a second later the door closed. Hmm, that was odd. Guess her neighbor wasn’t the social type.

After that she ran into Red, as she had nicknamed her for her flaming red hair, a few more times. Maria would smile, Red wouldn’t and that’s how it went for a couple of weeks. Red kept odd hours which made Maria wonder what kind of job she held. Then one day Maria ran into her again, except this time Red looked pale and weak, like she was about to faint. “Hey, you ok?” Maria called after her. Red turned around to look at her like she was a ghost and then hesitated a second before saying “I think I have the flu. I feel like death.” Before she could stop herself, Maria blurted “Oh, you look it too.”

‘Oops! Where’s your head, Maria!’ she chided herself mentally.

Red smiled a rare smile. “You don’t have a speech filter, do you?” she said. Her eyes twinkled and this was the first time Maria had seen any expression on her solemn face. When she smiled, she looked really beautiful. “Yea, I prefer to be just as surprised at what comes out of my mouth” Maria said and that produced a giggle out of Red. Finally the ice had been broken.

“Do you need some help? I could make you some soup and come sit with you if you’d like. I won’t bother you, I promise. I’ll just be close by in case you need anything or your fever spikes.” Maria said, her voice a concern. Red smiled again, a little feebly. “Why do you want to help me? You barely know me. You don’t even know my name.” Now it was Maria’s turn to smile and in standard Maria fashion she said “I don’t. I haven’t had a chance to talk to you so in my head I named you ‘Red’ because of your hair, you know.”

Red chuckled. “That’s creative. It’s not my natural color. I’m a natural blonde but there are so many blondes in…..” she hesitated briefly before adding “my line of work. I might just adopt that name. I go by Naomi but my given name is Samantha.” And just like that the two girls bonded over flu and hot soup. Samantha told her about how she was an orphan and had few friends. She didn’t delve into details about her job that needed her to have two names and Maria didn’t press. Maria instead told her about how she had moved here to find a job to fund her schooling and had no luck so far.

A month after meeting Red, yes Maria still called her that, they were hanging out with each other a lot more. Usually they met at Red’s place which was a lot bigger and a lot nicer than Maria’s. It spanned the entire depth of Frankie’s store and included a bedroom and a small kitchenette. Maria would often come over and cook for the two of them. Red didn’t mind since all she could do was boil eggs. While Red went out on her “job” which she still hadn’t told Maria much about, Maria continued to scour the newspapers. She still hadn’t found a job and was seriously considering moving back home and taking a year off to do a full time job to help save up. Not what she had planned but such was life.

That night as they slurped on Italian Wedding soup, Maria brought up the subject of moving back home. “I guess I wasn’t thinking too clearly when I made the decision to move here. I haven’t had any luck with finding a job. Heck, I haven’t even received a single call. I’m so bummed, Red.” Red knew Maria had started to become antsy. She was also hurting financially but was too proud to ask for help. Maria continued to eat her soup and remained subdued throughout the evening. “It will work out.” is all Red could say. Red had thought a lot about letting Maria in on her line of work, maybe even getting her started. But she seriously doubted Maria, the geek would be interested in becoming an escort. Plus, Red didn’t want to lose the only good friend she had, so she remained silent.

Red awoke from a deep slumber. The clock on her bedside table read “12:00”. She thought she had heard something. She raised herself on her elbows and listened. Someone was knocking on her door. Who could it be at this time of the day? Her first appointment wasn’t until 6 pm and she was meeting him for dinner. Maria had a key so not her. She hated people disturbing her at odd hours. She would let it go except whoever was on the other side was persistent. She finally climbed out of bed, cursing under her breath, jabbing pins into an imaginary voodoo doll and dragged herself to the door. She opened it a slit and the rays of the sun hit her front and center. She cursed some more, louder this time until a shadow blocked the sun out. She opened her eyes and saw Maria standing there. “What the hell, Maria! I was sleeping. You know how I hate when I am disturbed. You couldn’t have let yourself in? Jeez girl.” Silence. Red looked a little closely. Maria’s face was gaunt. It looked like she had been crying. In her hand was an envelope.

“I’m sorry Red, I didn’t mean to wake you but I didn’t feel right just leaving you a note either. Also I needed to return your key.” Maria said. “Wait wait?” Red said rubbing her eyes. “Return my key? What’s going on?” she was confused.

“My dad has had a stroke. I need to go back home. I don’t know how bad it is or if he will even make it. I’m not sure when I’ll be back or if I even will. I didn’t want to leave you hanging and a note seemed cold, sooo…” Maria trailed off.

“Damn girl. I am so sorry. Shit I’m sorry. Let me drive you home. Come in. I need to call and cancel my appointments and then we can go.” she said kindly as she led a rather shaken Maria into the living room. While Maria sat in silence staring into space, Red made a few quick calls from her bedroom to let her clients know she would be out of town on a emergency for a week and would reschedule once she got back. Then she packed a bag and emerged out of the bedroom. Maria was just as she had left her. She looked like someone had punched her in the gut. Car keys in hand, Red walked up to Maria and said “Let’s go, kid.” Maria stood up mechanically and followed Red out the door.

Red had spent a week with Maria at her parents’ home. Her dad was in bad shape. He had lost most of his motor skills. His face was a gruesome mask and he drooled constantly. He sat in his hospital bed all day with only Maria and Red and the nurses by his side. Maria’s mom seemed to have checked out. She stayed home for the most part and smoked her Camels and drank her red wine. Red tried to ask Maria about it but Maria was in no shape to talk. The university’s insurance plan was pretty mediocre and soon the bills started to pile up. Red was in the kitchen making green tea one afternoon when she heard a shriek from the next room. She rushed out and saw a petrified Maria staring at a piece of paper. “Maria, what is it?” she asked, concerned. Maria handed her the paper. She was white as a ghost. It was a bill from the hospital in the amount of $50,000 and her dad had been in there less than a week.

“Red, we have no savings. Where will I get this money from? Even if I find a job, I doubt it will cover these bills. I’m scared, Red. He needs this treatment. Oh my God, what am I going to do!” Maria started hyperventilating and Red had to run into the kitchen to fetch a brown paper bag, probably from that wine Maria’s mom had bought. She made Maria breathe into it to calm her down. “Maria, stop worrying. I have savings. I can help with this. Just sit, will you.” Maria looked at Red like she had lost her mind. “No, I can’t let you. Besides these bills will only keep growing. Even you don’t have that much money. Either way I can’t burden you with this. I will have to….umm umm.” She was babbling now. Red patted her on the shoulder. “Maria” she repeated slowly this time, like she was talking to a 3-year old “I have the money. I will help. If it makes you feel any better, let’s call it a loan and you can pay me back when you get a real job. You need this right now so just let me, ok?” Maria was too numb so she just nodded.

Red had gone back to Allensville after a week, making Maria promise to forward all medical bills to her address. Red was right. The amount kept growing. She was able to afford it but she couldn’t imagine Maria going through this alone. A quiet shudder went through her. Maria had told her about her dad needing round-the-clock care. He was getting better but he would never be the same again. Maria was going to need a job that paid the bills and then some. College would have to wait. Red finally decided she was going to tell Maria what her source of income was and then see if she would like to come into the fold. Her client list was growing to where she soon wouldn’t be able to sustain it herself anyway. A partner would do her good…especially someone she trusted.

Maria was stunned when Red broke it to her. “An escort?” she asked in a whisper. “You’re a prostitute?” With practiced efficiency, Red kept her cool. “Maria, a prostitute is someone who offers sexual favors down the street. I’m an escort. Not all of my clients come to me for sex. Some of them just need a companion. I have one guy who likes to use me as a sounding board when he has critical decisions to make on his job. These are well-educated, well-groomed people looking for…how did Starbucks’ Howard Schultz put it? A third place to stop on the way home.” Red added with a cheeky smile. Maria was too shocked to react. “But you still offer….umm, services?” she asked in a hushed tone. They were alone at the little Chinese restaurant so the hush was unnecessary. “Maria, don’t be a child! I know you’ve had sex with your boyfriends and I know you’ve had quite a few boyfriends so don’t go all saintly on me.”

“Redd! They were people I was emotionally involved with. Not just some random guys off the street.” Maria looked insulted. Red took a deep breath and said “Look, your dad is going to need your help and a lot of money for his care. Your mom clearly is not cut out for it. This work pays good money. And these aren’t just some random guys off the street. They are CEOs and VPs and lawyers in pretigious firms. They don’t pick up hookers on street corners. I vet them thoroughly. I have a guy that helps me with background checks, financial status, medical history, history of domestic abuse or misdemeanor charges. Someone always knows where I am and I check in with a colleague each time after I’m done. We are a close knit network in this line of work so we look out for each other. That’s how the risks are managed. Look, you don’t have to do it. I just wanted to give you an option. You won’t be able to go to school anytime soon and I doubt you’ll find another job that will pay this kind of money. Just think about it, ok?” Red pleaded. “I took a great risk telling you this. I value your friendship too much so I hope  you don’t walk away from me after knowing this. God I hope you don’t.” With that, she slid Maria a check, slid out of the booth, pecked Maria on the cheek and parted with “Call me…for anything.”

That was four years ago. Maria had called Red after a few days of mulling over it. Red had been worried sick. She had almost given up on ever hearing from Maria when she called. “I don’t know how I’m doing this but I’m in. You’ll have to guide me and I don’t know anyone so not sure how I can get started.” Red had been ecstatic. She had suffered serious guilt pangs after her last discussion with Maria, berating herself for trying to rope her into this world. But she knew this was her only way to make sure Maria could take care of her family. Maria had moved back to Allensville, taken on her new name Laila and with Red’s help, she had built up a reliable clientele slowly. She eventually repaid Red’s debt despite Red’s laments and saved up enough to buy an apartment where she now entertained her guests.

Every so often, like the night Joe visited her, Maria/Laila wondered how her life would have turned out had she not met Red. Her dad was doing well in hospice and her mom was taken care of as well. Red had married Mark, one of her long term lovers and finally quit this line of business. She looked happy and extremely pregnant. They still talked every single day since Red now managed Laila’s accounts and soon Laila was going to be a godmother to a very precious baby boy.

Laila smiled as she remembered what her fourth grade teacher had written in her yearbook “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.” She hadn’t understood what it meant then, but as she watched Joe’s car drive away, she realized, she had made lemonade and then some!

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