Read Some Girls: My Life in a Harem Online

Authors: Jillian Lauren

Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Memoirs, #Middle Eastern Culture

Some Girls: My Life in a Harem (7 page)

BOOK: Some Girls: My Life in a Harem
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“Jesse?” Ari asked, when Destiny introduced herself.
“No. Destiny. It’s on my license.”
Destiny’s fried brassy extensions put Jon Bon Jovi to shame and her green contacts made her look like something out of
Cat People.
Her three-inch acrylic claws were painted with neon zebra stripes that matched those on her fingerless gloves. No classy suit for her. I couldn’t stop staring. I was enthralled.
Ari sat across from us in a straight-backed chair. She could have been a kindergarten teacher getting ready to read us a story. She began by explaining that she worked for a rich businessman in Singapore who threw nightly parties for himself and a few friends. They were looking for a handful of American women to join the party as his guests for two weeks, and we could expect to receive a cash gift upon leaving. This cash gift would be somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty thousand dollars. She assured us of our safety and told us that we’d be treated with respect, even pampered.
I watched the reaction of one of the girls I had pegged as tough competition. She was a long blonde with crazy cheekbones. I could tell she thought she had it in the bag. My competitive spirit kicked in. I didn’t know if I believed Ari or even if I wanted to go on this mysterious and potentially dangerous job, but I knew I wanted to be picked. Ari asked us questions.
“Have you traveled at all outside the country?”
“I’ve been to London and to Ibiza,” bullshitted Taylor, “and I plan on touring Bali in the spring.”
“No,” replied Dud Number One.
“I went to Hawaii once,” answered the blonde.
I thought it best to leave out my family trip to Israel. I told her that I had been to the Cayman Islands and that I was saving to go to Paris. It was the truth.
“Does the Bronx count?” asked Destiny. “Nah, I’m just messin’ with ya.”
Ari paused and tilted her head, contemplating Destiny as if she were an exotic animal. Then she snapped back into business mode and told us that the job would require maturity and respect for other cultures and that she was looking for girls with whom it would be easy for her employer to get along. I caught some of the Gidget spirit from Ari. Gidget Goes Geisha.
“I love traveling,” I said. “I love experiencing other cultures and I’m a fun party guest and I’d be perfect for this job.”
I felt like I was vying for a job in the Peace Corps, until we reached the second half of the audition and went into the next room for a photo shoot. The bed had been pushed aside in order to make room for the lighting setup. We lined up along the wall and waited for our turn in front of the camera. A too enthusiastic photographer took pictures of each of us in our underwear and handed us his card, in case at a later date we needed head shots at a good rate.
The whole thing seemed dubious and I soon forgot all about it. It was just another afternoon standing around another hotel room in my underwear. But less than a week later, I received a call from Ari telling me that I had been selected, along with Destiny. Destiny of the fingerless gloves. Not Taylor. I dreaded telling Taylor that I had been picked and she hadn’t. I knew her well enough to know that our relationship was contingent on the power imbalance between us and I didn’t want to lose her. She was the only girlfriend I had who understood what I did for work every night and liked me anyway. I loved Sean. I dug my friends from the theater and they were far more sophisticated than Taylor in matters artistic and intellectual. Still, they were forever on the other side of an invisible membrane, the barrier that separated me from most of the world, from anyone who wasn’t a stripper or a hooker. Taylor stood firmly on my side of the wall and I didn’t want to be left standing there alone.
Ari went on to explain that she didn’t work for a Singaporean businessman at all, but rather for the royal family of Brunei. The money was better than she had intimated at first, though she couldn’t be specific. The parties I was to be attending would be thrown by Prince Jefri, the youngest brother of the Sultan, and I would be his personal guest.
To which I responded, “The Prince of
chapter 6
ri said that she would need my passport Fed-Exed in order to arrange for an immediate visa. Fantasies of doing the dance of the seven veils in a domed palace warred with fears of being forced into white slavery on a bare mattress. Could I trust this woman? I instinctively felt that I could. The story was too farfetched to be a lie. But how could I know? I spontaneously decided to accept the invitation, figuring I could change my mind at the last minute. Buzzing with the rush of making such a daring move without instigation from Taylor, I walked to the mailbox place on Houston Street and sealed my passport in an envelope headed for Los Angeles.
I hadn’t told my roommate Penny yet. Penny was an aspiring director and in the hours she didn’t work as an intern for the Wooster Group or as a waitress at an Italian restaurant uptown, she was constructing an ambitious theater piece, featuring a handful of our friends.
Penny and I rode the F train out to a friend’s loft in Park Slope, which we were using as a rehearsal space. I meant to tell her about the Brunei job on the ride out there, but for some reason, I couldn’t. I’d have to miss rehearsals for a couple of weeks, but that wasn’t the primary cause of my reluctance. Penny was bright and ambitious and hardworking. I was all those things, too, but I was constantly in search of a way to ditch the hardworking part. Penny was completely nonjudgmental of my pager and my late-night cab rides, of my being the only girl trotting down Ludlow Street at two in the morning dressed in a business suit. But I looked at myself through her eyes and I judged me.
I went the whole rehearsal without telling her. We had divided the loft into four quadrants, with a separate drama being enacted in each one. My scene involved a blond drugstore wig, a basket of cosmetics, and a phone conversation with our friend Ed the Meat Poet (as opposed to Beat Poet), a performance artist who was pursuing his doctorate in German philosophy. We’d all gone to see him perform on my birthday and he’d presented me with a raw birthday steak (as opposed to cake) onstage. Afterward, when we’d gone for drinks at Max Fish, he’d given me a wrapped gift. It was a franc.
“For when you get to Paris.”
I’d have to get back to my dream to go to Paris. Maybe this new job would even finance it.
On the ride home, I stared out the dark subway window at nothing, at my own face reflected back at me. We sat in the comfortable silence of roommates for half the ride before I turned toward her and explained about the job in Brunei—what I knew about it, anyway.
She paused. “Are you joking?”
Once she’d established that I wasn’t kidding, she knew me better than to try to stop me. She thought for a minute and then she launched right into elaborate emergency plans. Penny was a girl of action.
“How long do we have? I need a copy of your license and credit card and passport. We need to come up with a secret password that you can use to signal me if anything is wrong—if you can contact me somehow. What else can we do?”
After a beat, she continued, “We could go to the botanica.”
Penny had a botanica she went to for cleansings and card readings and dressed candles. I neither believed nor disbelieved in her talismans, but there are times when I’ll take whatever help I can get.
“For what?”
I agreed, though I knew that if this escapade went awry, it would take more than a coconut shell and a candle to save me. Still, we stopped on the way home to get a protection candle. On it was a picture of the archangel Michael, his torso itself a suit of armor, his hair a glowing helmet, his foot securely planted on Satan’s head. I had wanted Mary, but the woman behind the counter insisted on Michael. I doubted a man, even an angel-man, would intervene in this case. Still, I burned the candle. But just to be safe, later that afternoon I headed uptown with my backpack over my shoulder. I thought I’d try to protect myself with the imperfect armor of information, too.
I walked past the incense sellers and the stone lions guarding the columned entrance of the public library. I was a pioneer in the position Ari offered, only the second group of American women to be invited to the parties of the Prince. There was no one I could talk to, no real way to ascertain the validity of Ari’s job offer. So, as it was the Paleolithic, pre-Wikipedia age, I camped out at the library for the afternoon and researched the country of Brunei and its royal family.
I turned the pages of encyclopedias, glossy-paged photo books, and a small paperback tell-all (which didn’t tell very much) titled
The Richest Man in the World: Sultan of Brunei
. The book was mostly an account of the Sultan’s business dealings involving people with names like Kashogi and Fayed.
I learned Brunei is a Malay Muslim monarchy located on the north coast of the island of Borneo. Independent from England since 1984, Brunei still retains strong cultural and diplomatic ties with the Queen. At that time, the Sultan of Brunei was, thanks to oil and investments, the richest man on the planet, though he’s since been blown out of the water by Bill Gates. He now comes in at number four, in between Microsoft’s Paul Allen and Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd.
I copied down the stats in a notebook. Brunei occupies approximately 2,228 square miles of the northern coast of Borneo, making it slightly smaller than the state of Delaware. Often called the Shellfare State, it has a population of 374,577 citizens, all of whom receive free education and health care on the Sultan’s tab. The Sultan has three brothers: Mohammed, Sufri, and Jefri, who would be my host. Mohammed, I read, was the most religious of the three brothers, taking only one wife and often vocalizing his criticism of his liberal (and libertine) brothers.
I found picture after picture of the Sultan and his two wives and one picture of his brother Mohammed, but I couldn’t find one of Jefri. The Sultan looked so official, with all his royal regalia and military badges. It was hard to imagine interacting with someone like that. The expectations of middle-class Jews from New Jersey don’t include run-ins with royalty. Most of the girls with whom I had gone to high school left town to attend college in places like Michigan or Syracuse, then wore their sorority pins home a few years later and stayed to marry dentists or optometrists.
Finally, in the back of a yellowing paperback, I found a small photograph of Prince Jefri. In it, he wears a polo helmet and a blue uniform. He stands next to a horse with a coat so glossy it throws a glare. Jefri seemed kind of short, but confident and athletic and surprisingly handsome. I caught something cold in his eyes, a glimmer of meanness. This, combined with an Errol Flynn mustache, gave him the look of some raffish scoundrel from another era. He was a real live Prince Charming, with a dash of villainy mixed in. I was suddenly convinced that I was going to Brunei after all. There in the library, I prepared myself to fly off to this parallel universe of palaces and parties, imagining that my life in New York would remain intact, awaiting my return.
That night, I told Taylor. She acted true to form and demanded a commission from my earnings. I acted true to form and agreed to give it to her.
When I explained the situation to Sean, I got my first indication that my departure wasn’t going to be as seamless as I had anticipated. There were going to be casualties. Previously, I had simply let Sean assume I was still dancing at the club, but the deception made me feel like shit. When I took the job in Brunei, I knew I had to come clean.
“I’m putting my foot down here,” Sean said calmly. “You cannot do this.”
We were standing in his narrow kitchen, with the yellowed paint peeling off the walls and the chrome legs rusting out from beneath the kitchen table.
going to give me twenty thousand dollars?”
“Not everything is about money. You make enough money at the club.”
The fact that he was right made me angrier, made me fight harder. The fact that I had lied to him about working at the club made me feel guilty and that made me fight harder still. Plus, I kind of did believe that my work “relationships” and my relationship with Sean were unrelated. They were light years away in my emotional landscape. I thought that he should understand and, furthermore, that he should agree.
“I just want this money so I don’t have to worry about money for a while.”
“That’s not how money works. More money gives you more to worry about, not less.”
“This is a job, okay?” I explained deliberately, as if he had been struck stupid. “This has nothing at all to do with us.”
Sean seemed to grow taller and broaden by a foot.
“Do you know that you’re fucking insane?”
“I am not insane. You’re a bourgeois, controlling asshole.”
He looked like he wanted to hit me. I recognized the look; I had seen it in my father a thousand times. The difference was that Sean would never actually do it. My upbringing had led me to believe that this meant he didn’t love me enough. I had no such hesitation and I threw a plate at his head to prove it. He ducked and it hit the wall behind him, shattering. I immediately felt like an idiot. It’s so humiliating to clean up the shards of the dishware you’ve pitched across the kitchen. He looked around and sighed and I could tell he agreed with me; I should be ashamed of myself. He asked me to go.
I didn’t understand why he insisted on standing between me and what I wanted. It was just an adventure, a stack of cash, a foreign prince. Couldn’t we give each other a little freedom? Meanwhile, I was the one who had gone through his letters, listened to his answering machine, excavated his apartment looking for relics of old girlfriends. I suppose I knew my stance was hypocritical, but I stood by it anyway. Because in the end I was going to do what I wanted to do. No one was stopping me from getting on that plane.
BOOK: Some Girls: My Life in a Harem
5.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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