The ad in back of The Village Voice read:
Attractive young woman wanted for nurse role-play and domination.
No experience necessary. Good $$. No sex.
At a loss for how to dress for such an interview, I wore what I did to conventional ones: black pants, button-up shirt, and cardigan. Fighting my way through the congested sidewalks of Herald Square, I dodged tourists outfitted in fanny packs and digital cameras who stopped mid-stride to stare up at the Empire State Building, or the display windows of Macy’s. I arrived at my destination unkempt, overwhelmed with sweat and irritation. After ringing the buzzer and riding the elevator to the second floor, I was greeted by a lanky woman in jeans with full lips and bare feet.
“Hi.” She sighed, and gave me a blasé smile. “I’m Fiona. I’ll give you a tour.” I could see I would not wow her with my firm handshake. I gave a feeble wave.
“Hi, Fiona, I’m Melissa.”
She gave me a once-over.
“Not for long, you’re not.”
She led me down hallways of polished wood decorated by ornate rugs, while sconces glowed along the red walls, reflected in mirrors hung in gilt frames. Here, in the sprawling Dungeon of Mistress X, I found what I had expected of my neighbor’s apartment, and I was hopelessly impressed. I had nothing to compare it to; it was like a movie set—an atmosphere truly designed for fantasy—more lush than I had even remotely imagined. It occupied the entire floor, comprised of a maze of dark hallways. Along these halls were the polished doors of a highly styled, big-budget dream; think David Lynch. Excitement folded through me in waves. I had to work here.
Behind three of those doors were the official “dungeons”: the Red Room, the Black Room, and the Blue Room. Accordingly colored, these rooms were huge—the Blue Room was easily seven hundred square feet—and all with ten-foot ceilings.
“The Red and Blue Rooms have full baths,” Fiona explained as she pushed open the bathroom door in the Red Room. She circled the marbled floor, pointing out amenities. “These towel racks are heated, so they need to be unplugged after sessions. All the sinks should have Scope, Dixie cups, and these little packages with disposable toothbrushes and paste.” I traced her steps, lingering over the miniature tube of Crest in its sealed package like take-out dinnerware and running my hand along the warm towels as I followed her back out into the Red Room. “That over there is the bondage table,” she said, indicating a waist-high bed with leather upholstery and metal rings intermittently hung around its edges. “The top is a lid that opens.”
“For storage?” I asked.
“For slaves. It doubles as a coffin.”
“For clients into sensory deprivation. If you’re lucky, you get to tie them up—gag, blindfold, the works—and stick ’em in there for most of the session.” She shrugged. “It can get worked into role-play scenes, too.”
I nodded, trying to picture myself improvising scenarios that incorporated coffins. She moved on, making her way around the room. “Here you’ve got the hanging cage, Catherine wheel, candles and clamps and economy-size lube in the wardrobe drawer.” She stooped to pull open the drawer. “And it looks like some pornos and pan ties.” I squinted to catch a glimpse as she slid the drawer shut and noticed a straitjacketed dummy propped in the corner behind the wardrobe, thick chains draped around its shoulders, its face hidden under a rubber mask with a zippered mouth. Mounted on the walls were hooks from which hung leather floggers, whips, riding crops, paddles, cuffs, blindfolds, and even a couple of gas masks. Fiona flipped switches, turned on fans, timers, and kicked open a wooden chest filled with muscular coils of rope. “Here are the stocks,” she said, pointing to a wooden frame with three holes in its wide horizontal beam: a neck-sized one flanked by two wrist-sized—I’d only ever seen these in period films and maybe at a renaissance faire as a kid. “That,” she pointed to a leather riding saddle draped over the stocks, “is the genuine article. Boss man has a thing for equestrian stuff; go figure.” As we left the Red Room, I inspected a human-size cage on the floor near the door, complete with a padlocked gate and gleaming dog dish inside.
The other two dungeons proved variations on the first. The Blue Room featured a giant wooden cross instead of a wheel; the Black Room had a leather swing that hung from the ceiling, dangling over a four-poster bondage bed. They all had a throne of some kind and mirrors on most of their walls. I avoided my own reflection in these. Fiona pointed out portable toilets tucked behind the dungeon doors and in the supply closets. Some of these were equipped with wheels and genuine porcelain bowls; some were more closely related to lawn chairs with plastic toilet seats.
Reeling, I wondered how I’d ever remember the names of all this equipment, let alone learn how to use it.
“So, most of this is probably for show, huh?” I asked, hopeful.
Fiona smirked silently.
We then made our way through the three medical rooms: Med 1, Med 2, and Med 3. More pristine than most doctors’ offices I had visited, these had adjustable examination tables, mirrored walls and ceilings, and cupboards filled with glinting equipment. There were proctoscopes and stethoscopes, rolling wheels with spikes and pincers. Clamps, syringes, thermometers, tongue depressors, gadgets to peek and pry in ears, eyes, noses, and mouths, and, in Med 2, huge anatomical posters of both the female and male reproductive systems in color.
Down the hall was the Cross-Dressing Room, with a mountainous leather couch and a vanity table whose matching wardrobe was bursting with man-size stilettos, French-maid costumes, and pan ties big enough to have a picnic on.
“So, the Cross-Dressing Room is just for . . . ,” I posited.
“Cross-Dressing is for cross-dressing.” Fiona smiled. “Feminization. Usually it’s part of a role-play, your slave playing the dirty slut, you with a strap-on, and so forth. Sometimes it’s just a game of dress-up, which is easy and fun.”
I nodded, aware of how much nodding I was doing.
“Cross-Dressing is also kind of an all-purpose room, for clients who don’t want the super dungeony or medical atmosphere. Sometimes they just want to talk about shit in a normal-looking setting.” I wanted to ask what kind of shit they liked to talk about but restrained myself.
The kitchen, as well as two dressing rooms, were places for the dommes to hang out in the downtime between sessions. The smallest room so far, the kitchen seemed cozy to me after the daunting enormity of the dungeons; it just looked like a kitchen—something I had a reference for. I didn’t realize that feigning placidity for so long had exhausted me until I felt myself relax in seeing something familiar. My default disposition was aloof and knowing, but this place had transcended any previous scenario in shock factor.
“There’s usually water and Diet Coke in there,” said Fiona, pointing to the refrigerator, “but don’t get too used to it. It’s supposed to be for the clients, but the girls drink it all, so Remy’s going to lock it up sooner or later.”
“He’s the boss. He comes in and out, usually at night. Totally harmless, if you stay out of his way.”
There was a small counter along the wall, flanked by a pair of stools. The counter bore a half-full ashtray and an empty can of Diet Coke with a lipstick-stained straw. A piece of paper with large black type hung above it, taped to the wall.
We think may be not body Understand if we found more of one girl in the Kitchen You have Fine and We discount money from you Paid.
We have Camera in Kitchen (everybody Know) this camera is recording 24 hours at day, every week we check that camera and if we found more of one girl in the kitchen we discount from you Paid without Advice.
Later no Ask why we discount money from you Paid. We have few reason to not admit more of one Girl in the Kitchen.
“Um, is that a joke?” I asked.
“Oh no.” Fiona waved a hand dismissively. “That’s just Remy having a hissy fit. There’s always a new note appearing somewhere. Right now he’s obsessed with the noise. You’re only allowed to eat in the kitchen, so everybody gets dinner delivered, and it gets noisy in here. Sometimes you can hear it in Med Three.” She shrugged. “Everybody listens for a little while, because they don’t want to get fined, but then things go back to normal.”
“So, English is his second language?”
“You could tell?” She cackled.
A small television protruded from another wall, mounted on a metal arm. Below it a large wicker hamper overflowed with laundry, mostly sheets and towels, a few frilly underthings peeking out from the folds.
“Goddamn it,” Fiona grumbled, striding over to it. “Nobody’s in session, and nobody’s doing laundry.” Turning her head over her shoulder, she said, “Excuse me while I put a load in.”
“Of course!” I was glad for a little time to observe my surroundings without her observing me.
Fiona pulled a pair of latex gloves out of a box sitting on the washer-dryer unit and put them on before loading the machine. Next to the washer-dryer was more countertop that led to a deep metal sink holding a few dishes and something else, which I stared at for a few seconds before recognizing it. A dildo. It was enormous, pink, and sheathed in a condom. As worldly as I considered myself, this was the first actual dildo I had ever seen. I must have inhaled sharply upon recognition, because Fiona turned her head and followed my gaze.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” She slammed the lid on the washing machine and peeled off one of the gloves, tossing it into a nearby trash can. With her still-gloved hand, she retrieved the dildo from the sink and headed back out into the hallway. “C’mon, I’ll introduce you to our illustrious mistresses.”
When Fiona pushed open the dressing room door, six pairs of eyes shifted from a wall-mounted television over the door onto us. The shame of being overdressed is a very specific feeling, and I felt it then. They were all wearing sweatpants, jeans, or hot pants. One woman knelt topless in front of the mirrored wall of lockers, a faint smile visible in her reflection as she puckered her lips to apply liner. The others lay draped across a white leather sofa and love seat. They all had a fluidity of body that is particular to those accustomed to being perceived sexually. They slouched over the overstuffed furniture looking bored and normal, some of them heavily tattooed, some fat, many older than me, and a few younger. They could have been friends of mine, schoolmates.
“Who left this in the kitchen sink?” Fiona demanded, dangling the dildo between her thumb and forefinger by its big pink balls.
“I did,” volunteered the topless woman, without pausing her lipstick application. “It isn’t used, obviously.”
“It’s still not okay, Georgina,” Fiona scolded. “Remy would shit if he came in here and found a dick in the sink.” Someone giggled from the couch.
“Yeah, yeah,” grumbled Georgina, hoisting herself to her feet and breezing by us, breasts bouncing. She grabbed the dildo from Fiona as she passed.
“Anyway,” Fiona glanced at me and then pointed with her long finger at each mistress as she said her name, “this is Camille, Autumn, Miss K, Bella, Lena, and that was Georgina.” She then motioned to me. “Girls, this is the interview. She doesn’t have a name yet.” I gave my second feeble wave of the afternoon. They coolly scanned my interview outfit, a few offering lukewarm smiles before their eyes shifted back to another wall-mounted television over my head.
Fiona interviewed me in an office covered with monitors. They revealed any activity in the elevator, the outside stoop, all of the hallways, the entryway, and the stairs. Her desk faced the screens, and on it sat a phone and an open appointment book, crammed with names and notes in various colors of ink. I later learned that each manager, or phone girl as we called them, had a color, so that Remy knew who to give the commission to for every session booked. The phone girls earned an hourly wage between $15 and $20, in addition to a $5 commission per session booked with a repeat client; new clients got them $10. The opposite wall boasted a complicated stereo system and a smaller desk with a computer monitor. At this smaller desk sat the topless Georgina, furiously typing.
“Okay, get out of here so I can interview this nice girl,” Fiona demanded after my tour.
“Let me just finish this forum post.” Georgina kept typing.
The interview lasted about four minutes. I didn’t have professional experience, I said, but I did have personal experience. The look on Fiona’s face made it immediately clear that this was a common lie. I didn’t realize I was hired until she asked me what days I’d like to work the following week. Of our conversation, mainly I remember this: $75 per one hour session, plus tips, which could range anywhere from $5 to $500. I told her I’d be in on Monday, 10:30 a.m.
Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir WHIP SMART (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), which Kirkus Reviews said, “Expertly captures grace within depravity.” Among other places, her writing has been featured in Hunger Mountain, The Southeast Review, Redivider, The Rambler, Storyscape Journal, The Huffington Post, The New York Times online, Bitch Magazine, and on The Nervous Breakdown, where she regularly blogs. She co-curates and hosts the Mixer Reading and Music Series at Cake Shop, teaches at SUNY Purchase College, The Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and NYU, and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. This summer, she will be a McDowell Colony fellow. She lives in Brooklyn. More information about her work and projects can be found at melissafebos.com.