“ ’88, huh?”
The security guard raised his eyebrow and glanced back up at Ross Whelan’s driver’s license to Ross himself – dressed in a black suit, white shirt, no tie. He stuck out like a sore thumb in the lobby of Harris Residential Hall. Judging by his age – 29 years young – he also knew Ross had no place on the University of Southern California’s campus.
Ross was unamused by the guard’s façade. He was just doing his job, but he didn’t have to be a dick about it. Ross was already uneasy about showing up to a college dorm in a suit that was a little frayed at the end of the sleeve. On the drive down the 110 from Highland Park, he wondered if he really was this desperate for money: pimping himself out on Tinder to anyone who would help him pay his rent. Anyone – men, women;
How the fuck did things get this bad?, he thought.
Ross had arrived in Los Angeles two years ago. He was hired to write on a TV show that got cancelled after 10 episodes. It was a network sitcom – one of those shows that only aging baby boomers watch – starring some asshole who was a big deal in the 1990s and “an exciting new voice in comedy” whose Snapchat fame preceded his joke writing ability. The whole thing was a disaster. But man, he recalled while exiting at Exposition Blvd, was that money nice.
He bounced from show-to-show for a year, gradually becoming more and more cynical with the Hollywood meat grinder: fading screenwriters turned showrunners who didn’t care about Trending Topics or diversity in Hollywood – they had fucking alimony to pay; executives who thought Top Gun reboots or giving an Instagram celebrity a talk show was a good idea; everyone talking about the West Coast as “the Best Coast” but they had never seen New York City, London, Paris, or even The Bay Area since George W. Bush was President.
Ross was over all of it, but didn’t want to move back to New York, or get a “real” job, so he took less work, which was how he ran out of money, so here he was: getting eyeballed by a 26 year old dorm security guard while college kids – kids was the operative word – streamed in and out of the building’s lobby. Some of them dressed in sweatpants and unshowered; many of them done-up, ready to be seen and heard in front of a Step & Repeat at a moment’s notice.
“Yup. Honor is expecting me.” Ross replied.
The guard took a deep, contemplative breath, “You know: she doesn’t get a lot of visitors.”
“Really?” Ross, trying to be congenial, kept his irritation in check.
“But when I called up: she said she was expecting you. So I guess you’re in the right place.”
The guard handed Ross back his driver’s license, and asked him to sign-in on the visitor log. As Ross scrawled the cheap Bic pen across a worn page that was curling at the edges, another crew of students herded past them: the girls dressed in Versace, the guys dressed Ben Sherman. USC was stacked with rich and powerful kids: some of them with basic decency, some of them for whom life was a playground. Ross put the pen back down.
“Were we ever like that?” he asked the guard.
“I don’t know, man – I went to Long Beach. It’s a different world down there.”
Ross rode the elevator alone up to Honor’s floor. He took out his iPhone and checked his hair and face in the camera: his green eyes looked a bit tired; the grey at his temples seemed to spread a little further across the expanse of his brown hair; his face was clean-shaven and his skin had a dull glow. He was still a young man, but he didn’t feel young. Of course: he hadn’t really felt young since he had been in college. Ross closed his phone and enjoyed a few more seconds of quiet and solitude, before this whole desperate charade had to start.
The elevator dinged open, and Ross stepped out as another set of party girls pushed past him onto the elevator:
“Ugh. This dorm is so gross.” One of them said, “I can’t wait to move to The Lorenzo next year. That shit’s gonna be tight.”
The Lorenzo was a giant McMansion condo complex, just two blocks off-campus, that lured college kids into expensive luxury leases but without supervision from those annoying R.A.s.
“You know who also lives there?” the second girl said, “Derek.”
“I know. I’ll be fucking the shit out of him every day.”
The doors closed and Ross stood alone on the dorm’s fourth floor – cinder blocks, industrial carpeting, corkboards with campus announcements, fluorescent lighting. Looks fine to me. Ross thought.
He began walking down the hallway to room 434. The click of his heels were muted by the carpet. As he passed under each light, the spaces in his thinning hairline became exposed. Ross could feel his whole body getting jumpy, his heart rate quickening: he was a grown man at a college campus, who was about to have sex with a college girl for money. Maxim celebrated these kinds of antics, but Ross was trying to not turn around and run back to his car.
You’re broke. You need the money. You’re broke. You need the money. You’re broke. You need the money.
He reached 434: a thick wooden door with a deadbolt and several coats of Dirt Brown paint slapped on it – drippings from previous coats were fossilized beneath the yellow plastic number plate.
Ross closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. He opened them again, and extended his fist to knock with the joints of his knuckles.
“Just a minute.”, said a muffled, female voice from behind the door.
Ross sat back on his heels, and could feel himself becoming lightheaded. He shook his shoulders to loosen up.
The lock turned.
The knob turned.
The door opened.
Opposite of the threshold stood Honor – her brown bangs covering her forehead, a blousey tanktop hung from her shoulders with a lacey bralette showing beneath it; she wore black jeans ripped at the knees, and ankle socks. She was 20 years old, but looked 17. She had a pear shape body. Atop her neck was a round face with big eyes – highlighted with cat eye mascara – and red lipstick on a flat, animated mouth. Her skin was pale.
“Wow. You dressed up.”, she said.
“I thought it would be a good idea.” Ross replied.
Honor sighed and showed a disappointed smirk, “I guess. Here – come in.”
Honor stepped aside and let Ross cross the threshold. She closed the door behind him.
Honor’s dorm room was dark. Christmas lights lined the ceiling and expensive lavender-scented candles burned in the room. On an opened laptop, Bon Iver’s “29 #Stafford APTS” played through a Bluetooth speaker. Her desk had a stack of books: Econ 203 Principles of Microeconomics, Pearson Custom Business Resources: Econ 205 Principles of Macroeconomics, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them by Newt Scamander and J.K. Rowling on the very top.
“Harry Potter. Very nice.” Ross said.
“Oh. Yeah. Thanks.” Honor replied.
Ross craned his neck to see the other titles, “Economics, huh?”
“I’m an accounting major.”
“Do you… do anything else?”
Ross hesitated with the truth, “Um…. No. Just this.”
“So, this is how you make a living?”
“…so you’ve been with a lot of people?”
“No! You’re actually my first.” Ross didn’t want to spook her out of giving him business.
“Oh. So you just started doing this.”
“Yeah.” They could both feel the awkward turn in the conversation. Ross looked over her shoulder at the well-made bed opposite of them. The desk next to it had a few indications that someone else lived in the room. “Is your roommate out of town for the weekend?”
“Yeah. But she’s barely ever here. She’s from the Palisades, so she goes home a lot.”
“How should we do this? Do I pay you upfront?”
It suddenly occurred to Ross that he had considered none of this. “Yes!” he chirped, “I can take cash or check.”
“I don’t have either of those. What do you think? I just keep $500 lying around in my dorm for when I feel like getting a prostitute?”
Ross felt a pang in his stomach – it was the first time he’d heard someone call him “prostitute” and he knew it to be true. “Okay. Uh… do you have Venmo?”
In a matter of moments, the transaction was done: all via app; first the meeting, then the payment. Ross verified receipt and then they stood quietly in Honor’s room.
“So, what do you want to do?” Ross asked.
“I like it rough.” She replied.
“I like to be choked and spanked. But, like: I want to cum, too.”
“Sure. Whatever you want. … Do you usually not cum?”
“No. Most of the guys I’ve been with go too fast, or they hit me when I don’t tell them, too.”
“What happens after that?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Now that you have your money, I’d like to do this, please.”
“Sure. Okay.” Ross was uncertain what to do next. “Should we just start?”
“Yes.” Honor replied, her voice becoming tense. “Just… just start, and I’ll tell you what I like and don’t like. Just keep asking me and listen to me. Okay?”
Ross nodded his head. He stepped close to her, only a few inches between them. They looked each other in the eye, and he kissed her. Their tongues swirled and flicked nervously in each other’s mouths. She pressed her body against him, and felt her breasts flatten into his chest. Her right hand splayed across his shoulder blade, her left hand grabbed his crotch. Ross’s hands hung at his side, lifeless and uncertain.
“Pull my hair.” Honor told her.
Ross reached around and placed his fingers across the back of her skull, letting her hair curl around his fingers, and pulling her back so that the roots gently tugged against her skin.
“Harder.” She said.
Ross gave it another tug.
“Harder.” She said.
Ross felt no passion or interest. It was like being instructed on how to change oil in a car. He tugged even hard, and Honor yelled.
“OW! Not that hard!” She pushed him away and he almost fell on top of her roommate’s desk.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Are you okay?”
Honor rubbed the back of her head, looking at Ross as if English were his third language, “Yeah. Um… ow, fuck.” Honor held her head for a few moments: this was not going great.
“Let’s try again,” she said after the pain wore off, “But I want to do a different tactic.”
She approached him again – very close – and said, “Kiss me down my neck.” She pulled her brown hair back and presented her pearl white jugular to him like a girl wanting to take the next step with her vampire fuck buddy. Ross leaned in and softly kissed her neck, working his way down to her chest.
This works. He thought. I think this works.
Honor’s breathing got heavier, “Touch my breast.”
Ross obliged. He continued to kiss her on her chest and cleavage, moving his hands off her breast onto her ass. Honor responded by rising up on her tiptoes. Her hand began to run through his hair as she pushed his face into he breasts.
Okay. He thought. This is better. She likes this. Just be careful.
“Slap my ass.” She said. Ross did so. She moaned and told him to do it again. Ross obeyed.
“What do you want next?” he asked. He brought his head back up to her and started kissing her again.
“I want…” she said, in between Frenching, “I want…” She stopped kissing him and pushed away from him again. “I can’t do this.”
Ross stared at her: confused, but very relieved.
Daikokuya’s dinner rush was dying down after Honor and Ross ordered their food. Their waiter returned with Cokes for each of them as they sat together in semi-silence – trying to figure what exactly was supposed to happen with the rest of their night.
Honor had paid Ross his money, but she couldn’t have sex with him. So she decided on the next best thing: take him out for ramen and make use of the companionship for the night.
“I’ve always wanted to try this place. It’s been around forever in Little Tokyo. My friends never want to come here. We always end up going to Tsujita in Santa Monica. And: it’s fine, but – like – why do we always have to go to the Westside for everything?”
Ross nodded his head, and looked beyond their booth out through the storefront window onto East 1st Street. Downtown Los Angeles was one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city. Like New York, there were tons of bars, restaurants, or nightlife within walking distance. And yet: barely a soul seemed to be out on the street. It was 10:00 p.m. In New York, that would’ve been the start of the night, but it was the beginning of the end in L.A. It got him thinking about all those USC party kids back at the dorm. They looked like they were ready to see the sun come up; but very few of them probably had or ever would.
Los Angeles is a city filled with people trying to be something they’re not; which gives it a veneer that shielded plenty of ruthless ambition and existential loneliness. Ross wondered if people in this town would ever learn how to have a good time by just being themselves. He returned his attention to Honor:
“So: how did you become a hooker?”
Ross grimaced, “I’m not a hooker.”
“I paid you for sex and you accepted it. So what does that make you?” Honor sucked an edamame bean from its pod as she spoke. Ross was a bit put off – he hated with people talked with their mouths full.
“What are you doing agreeing to pay for sex? You’re attractive.”
“Thank you. But I asked you first.”
Ross took a sip of his soda, “I’m broke. So this was the best thing I could think of.”
“Why are you broke?”
“Because I didn’t save my money when I should’ve.”
“That’s why I study accounting. Because I don’t want to go broke. I want to know how money works and never worry about that stuff.” She pulled another pod from the bowl between them. Ross stared at her with some contempt, but then remembered that she had paid for his company – so he had to sit there and listen to her. “What did you do before you went broke?”
“I’m a writer.”
“TV. I wrote for a couple of TV shows, but I’m kind of sick of it.”
“You grew up in The Valley, didn’t you?”
“Why do you ask?” Ross sat back in the booth and couldn’t wait to hear where this was going.
“You look like a guy from The Valley. You look older than your age, and a little more uptight.”
“I’m from New York City. I grew up in Riverdale, and lived in Manhattan.”
“I’ve never been.” Honor pushed the bowl towards the wall of their booth, exercising self-control.
“I hear that a lot.” The waiter arrived with two steaming bowls of pork ramen. The broth was a vibrating yellow, housing noodles, tender meat, and eggs in its watery embrace. Honor’s face lit up as she excitedly unwrapped her chopsticks and dug in. Ross contemplated his ramen for a moment: it wasn’t his favorite dish. But this “date” wasn’t exactly what he wanted, either. She was making dumb small talk and he was wondering when this whole night would just be over. And then he could take his money – with no remorse – and go home to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling until the sun came up. By the time he had unwrapped his chopsticks, she had finished a third of his food.
Honor laid her chopsticks in her bowl with her spoon to the side. She watched Ross as he struggled to keep his meat between his sticks.
“Do you really think I’m attractive?”
Ross slurped up a noodle, “You think otherwise?”
“Look at me: look at my hips, look at my thighs, look at my ass. All my friends are size 1s and I’m a bloated whale.”
“That’s why I’m here then, right?”
Honor watched him eat some more, “I don’t get guys. They don’t want to date me. They’ll fuck me. But they want to date other girls.”
Ross pretended to care, “Like your friends. This must really bother you.”
“It does! I like sex. But I also want a boyfriend.”
Ross finally got a couple bites of pork, “Why does it bother you so much? You got a whole life ahead of you. With your degree, you’ll probably be fine for a job. I wouldn’t worry about a boyfriend, if I were you.” He picked up his spoon and started slurping broth.
Honor leaned forward, “Can I tell you a secret?” Ross nodded his head. “I hate all of my friends. I hate USC. I hate L.A. I feel like my whole life has been me doing things because that’s what I’m supposed to do. And I do them. And that’s fine with everyone, because we all have these… identities we were supposed to be playing. But I feel like: it’s all bullshit. Like, I’m not happy being who everyone else wants me to be. And I’ve talked to my friends about this – like, one-on-one. And we all feel the same, but no one wants to do anything about it. They’re all like, ‘We’re a family. And families have to have one of everything.’”
Ross put down his chopsticks and spoon, and listened to her.
“But I don’t want to be the fun fat girl who you fuck, but you don’t date. Who would want to be that? I want to be: me. And I want to be with people who like me because I’m me. So that’s why I’m not out tonight. And that’s why, I guess, you’re here. And I guess that’s why we’re eating ramen instead of having sex right now. Because I wanted to be myself tonight. And out of all the people I know in L.A. – you’re the only one I can be that with.”
Honor picked up her chopsticks and continued to eat her ramen. Ross watched her eat, and then tried again with the noodles.
Ross stirred awake as daylight broke through the window of Honor’s dorm room. He couldn’t see a clock anywhere, but he’d guess it was 7:00 a.m. by where the sun sat. He had not slept well: twin beds weren’t meant for two people. Honor’s head rested on his shoulder, while her arm and leg clung to him as if he were a body pillow. She was still in her tank top and bralette from the night before, he wore his white shirt – both of them had slept with no pants. Ross moved quietly out of bed while Honor stirred and smacked her lips. He reached for his pants and jacket, left on the roommate’s bed. He was tired – very tired – and pulled out his phone to Google the nearest Starbucks before he would start the drive home.
“Thank you for staying last night.”
Ross turned around to find Honor still under the sheets – eyes closed, pushing words out of her mouth as if they were her last. She did not get up or open her eyes.
“I’ll Venmo you an extra $200.”
“You don’t have to do that.” Ross replied.
“I want to.” She wheezed. “You were really nice about it, so you should get paid.”
Ross didn’t want to take her money. But he knew he had to – he needed anything.
Ross put his shoes on and tied them. He was ready to leave.
“We should do this again.” Honor said.
“Yeah, well. You have my number. I’m around.”
“You’re a nice guy, Ross. I know you’re not happy. But I think you’re nice, and good. You’re not a creep like a lot of guys I know.”
There was a moment of hesitation. The night was over, the transaction had been made – Ross had every reason to leave. But something felt off. Maybe it was sense of pity for Honor. Maybe it was because she said one the nicest things he had heard in the last two years. He leaned over the bed and kissed her on the head. She picked herself up, took his collar, and kissed him on the lips. It wasn’t awkward or nervous as last night. She let go of his collar and went back to sleep.
“I’ll send you $225.”
She turned her back to him – as if she had gotten everything she needed – and fell back asleep. Ross turned and left her dorm.
Outside of the dorm, the 26 year old security guard smoked a cigarette and watched Ross as he left the building. They made eye contact and Ross stopped walking.
“Have fun last night?” The security guard smiled. His teeth and lips were full of judgment. He was a bad comedian hinting at a dumb joke rather than just saying what was on his mind. Either way, Ross got it: he thought Ross was some gross older guy who couldn’t do any better, and he would always remember this encounter to remind himself, “I’m better than that sad bastard who showed up in a suit to fuck a college kid.” Ross smirked, flipped him off, and walked back to his car.
As his Prius sped up the 2 going north, Ross thought about their conversation over ramen last night – Honor’s clumsy, youthful diatribe that struck at the same chord he heard. The question, “What am I even doing here?” Ross’s life in Los Angeles was not going as he’d hoped. And yet: he refused to change anything. As a result, life felt darker, more restrictive, more pointless. He wondered if it would be this way forever. Would his existence always feel so lonely and frustrated? The irony, of course, was that out of pure desperation: he had found someone who felt much of the same. He seriously doubted that his and Honor’s relationship would be anything more than professional. In fact: it would be best if it stayed professional. She was too young and he didn’t the hassle.
Still, he thought, it was nice to meet someone I had something in common with.
The sun got brighter, opening its eye on the San Gabriel Mountains.
Russ could tell: it was going to be a really beautiful day.