Words on Homo Words: “International Exchange”

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As part of our week-long Words on Homo Words series, here’s a piece of fiction from a reader.

He insists he wrote it especially for us, but we doubt the validity of said claim. Why? Well, because we’re cynical assholes, of course.

He’d rather not be identified, so we can only assume he’s either in the closet or painfully shy. He also requested we not sully his wordage with images. Even if this fag’s more demanding than Mariah, we’ll post his story, “International Exchange,” anyway.

Not only do we think it’s a good read, but it involves a Palestinian hooker who aspires to be a writer.

Funny, we got our first gig sucking dick, too.

International Exchange

Ishmael imagined his mother’s face as he made the transaction, hovering like a hologram above the desk and slicked with disapproval. Miraculous blue eyes quivered beneath a dark, furrowed brow adorning her Middle Eastern beauty in a shroud of preternatural indignity. It felt like an eternity since he’d last seen her. Dulled by time and tide, her remembered words stung none-the-less. “That is not your nation.”

When he snuck from Palestine to America, Ishmael told her he was going to become a famous writer. She told him he was fool hardy, but he persisted, and left without her blessing. Now, eight months later, he was a prostitute, selling himself in the back of a gay magazine. He hadn’t realized that not all dreams come true in America.

Isaac Cohen, the young American across the desk, counted the money with diligent hands and a bored, lazy expression. Heavy with disinterest, his silence emanated in gulping tidal waves. Brief but sharp, his eye contact proved a formidable weapon for Ishmael’s acquiescent, lonesome gaze. Tall and privileged looking, thick black hair twirled above his striking, Sephardic features: raging cheekbones beset by hazel eyes and pink, supple lips.

In the six months since Ishmael first sulked into his office, Isaac’s features had never been anything but stoic, even in introduction. Though strong, his handshake was hollow, betraying the preoccupation that poured from his pouted lips. His mind, it seemed, was working over ten details at once, all more engaging and pressing than Ishmael’s economic survival. His brow reminded Ishmael of his father’s, or at least what he remembered of his father. In fact, looking at him, Ishmael saw a fantastic, unburdened version of himself. Although shorter and with weathered features, Ishmael imagined that in different circumstances they could have been brothers. Ishmael was shorter and his features exhibited years of privation, in better circumstances they could have been brothers. But, clearly a familial bond was purely delusional. Where Isaac’s eyes twinkled with opportunity, Ishmael’s reflected with the translucent rejection and disheartening of mean less ambition. In this light, Ishmael imagined Isaac the spoiled younger brother for whom everything was granted, but nothing enough. Disdain permeated his every gesture.

Behind Isaac a bland, February day poured through a large, sliding window. Aside from the blue haze of the computer, there was no other illumination in the bare, cramped office. A few months back, when the days grew shorter, Ishmael asked Isaac about the lack of electric light. “Fluorescent light is a terrible thing,” he said with no humor, rhyme, or reason. It just was, and thus today a shadowy afternoon light poured freely. Somber cobalt hung between them, punctuated by Isaac’s irreverent clacks across the keyboard. He inhaled and inquired presumptuously, “You want to renew the ad for four weeks, Ishmael?”

Ishmael’s homesickness permeated so deeply that the very sound of his name – his real name, not his hooker name: Tomer – brought a sick thrill. Under a tinge of scorn and with no trace of familiarity, it rang coldly. It stung more than any insult. Ishmael took a breath to muster his pride. He would not allow this American Jew to efface his self-respect. He did that enough himself. Besides, the advertisements had worked, and money was flowing freely. He had saved a considerable amount, which he planned to use for an inspirational holiday across America. His travels would free his words, allow him the space to think and plan his next move. One day, too, he would return home. Then, his mother would have no choice but to accept his decision. He would prove her wrong. As self-satisfied as spiteful, Ishmael insisted. “No! Two weeks, and then two for vacation.”

Before America, Ishmael had never thought about sleeping with another man, much less for money. When his savings ran out, however, and no legal jobs arose, he was forced into submission. Though he preferred women, a street savvy Venezuelan friend emphatically insisted that there was more money in the plenty of pickled, gay men. “From them, the dollars ooze!” Eyes wild with drug and mouth frothing, he instructed Ishmael to place an ad in one of the weekly gay magazines, where he himself had launched his illustrious career as a prostitute. “Small investment to big, American future!”

Ishmael’s inductive experience was a terrifying, sickening effort. Unaccustomed to uncircumcised penis’, his European client’s chapped foreskin was a test of will. His determined haste brought wave after wave of revulsion, and he coughed pathetically over the bed, ribbons of burning drool hanging from his raw lips. Pallid, overweight, and sweaty, Ishmael’s inaugural client rubbed his back with disinterest before guiding him back to his glistening crotch. He gave him an extra fifty for the effort and sent Ishmael on his way to another John.

Though he’d never admit it, Ishmael wasn’t always so sickened. There were a few men near his age, 25, with clear, symmetrical faces and charming manner with whom Ishmael had sincerely enjoyed sex. But, after, when the johns brazenly lit their cigarettes, or rolled over with a satisfied sigh, vacancy usurped primal sensuality. Ishmael’s father had abandoned him as a child, sending his mother out to fend for them alone, guided by nothing but empty, unsubstantiated promises. Seeing the backs he had just gripped in passion turn in indifference stung just the same.

“Same text?” Isaac stared impatiently at Ishmael for a moment before turning back to the computer. The light bathed his face, giving his cheeks an eerie allure.

Ishmael nodded lifelessly.

In the time since Ishmael embarked on his lurid career, not once had Isaac engaged him in conversation. Their transactions were conducted in silence broken only with formal words which left Ishmael feeling smaller than when he entered, battered by the American’s humiliating lethargy. The entire scenario was indicative of their positions: the American Jew and the Palestinian plebe. Though not as embittered as many of his peers, Ishmael’s national resentment plagued incessantly. Slumped in the seat, as the reality of his situation began to sink in, Ishmael’s nag swelled, amplified by Isaac’s taciturn indifference. He snapped suddenly and violently. “How long have you worked here?”

The abruptness of the inquisition startled Isaac. “About a year.”

“And what did you do before this?” He salivated with curiosity and resentment.

“I went to school.” Isaac replied with more than a hint of self-conscious regret. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His eyes focused into something Ishmael recognized: unwarranted defeat. Somewhere behind Isaac’s stolid features lurked an abominable wound, one over which Isaac had no control, nor could he heal. Ishmael saw it, recognized it, and wanted to exploit it. He wanted to dive in and take that pain, black, viscous, and pulsing to hold it out for Isaac. That would give him something to pout about.

A disparaging purse of air escaped his lips. “You have to study for this?”

“No.” Isaac crossed his fine, thin hands across the desk. For the first time, his attention was all Ishmael’s. He answered with strained composition. “I studied English.”

“English! Doesn’t everyone in America study English? Why study your own language?” Ishmael laughed and gave his knee an exaggerated, pompous slap.

“That’s a very good question.” A grimace dragged his practiced expression toward humanity, dulling the pierce of his hazel eyes. Isaac’s story came nowhere near original. The only son of a wildly and respectively successful doctor father and lawyer mother, his passion for writing came as a devastating blow to their lofty expectations. Of course, in the early years, he had tried to appease them by studying politics and biology, stalling the inevitable, impending decision. When he finally broke the news, his mother – as straight faced as with a jury – insisted that while she accepted his homosexuality, his writing was another story. The grave disappointment on his father’s face broke Isaac’s heart. As absurd as the feud, something fundamental had changed between them. The son for whom the world was meant had turned away, bringing their fantastic destiny to its knees. Explaining himself to Ishmael, Isaac remembered the words, and just as shyly. “I like language, I suppose, and I like using it creatively.”

“You’re a writer?” Ishmael leaned on the desk. Their hands were almost touching. “I am a writer, too!”

Isaac held Ishmael’s gaze for a moment before smirking. “You must be getting a lot of material in your line of work.”

“Ha! Yes.” He bowed bashfully, and then sat erect. Rubbing his chin, Ishmael took a harder look at Isaac. Maybe he wasn’t as cold as he seemed. Maybe Ishmael had been wrong about him. Maybe there was more to Isaac than the inert salesman waiting to take his money and turn him out – a pimp with an office. “And you are from New York?”
“No. I’m from Oregon, on the West coast. A lovely place, but definitely no New York.”
“Nothing is like New York! When I first got here, I just stared for hours. I was so in awe!” Ishmael beamed, feeling as if he had made a real accomplishment with only a few words.

Isaac laughed good-naturedly. “Are you kidding? I still stare in awe! How can you not? This is singularly the best city for inspirational characters.”

“Why be in this office, then? Why not be out there, staring at all the things and writing about them? Why be selling ads?”

“I’m hustling.” Isaac chuckled, eyes twinkling knowingly.

“We are two hustlers far from home.” Isaac laughed, picking up a copy of the magazine and flipping the pages with a sneer. “Like them.”

“In many ways, yes.” Isaac agreed half-heartedly. He didn’t have the heart to admit that a family friend had offered him a dull, but respectable job as a copy editor at a political journal. He started Monday.

The afternoon light had faded, and the blue of the room had gone black. Ishmael strained to see Isaac’s face, but the shadows obstructed a view. Silence fell. The camaraderie of their exchange wilted and though he couldn’t see it, Ishmael was sure no smile lay hidden. “When you see me, do you see just another whore?”

Isaac didn’t hesitate. “No.”

“Did you before?” Ishmael held his breath, hoping for affirmation.

He inhaled deeply and sighed. For the first time, he was thinking of a reply. “It is not my place to judge someone by how they make their money. This is America, we’re all hookers; you, at least, have a bit of fun in the process.”

It was the most honest thing Ishmael had heard since leaving home. A tremendous weight had been lifted. Since his arrival, Ishmael hadn’t felt such surprising hope. Sitting there, it seemed that despite prophetic declarations, his hopes would be his own. He looked above Isaac’s head and saw nothing but the outside world. His mother was not there, nor could her voice be heard. He stood and extended his hand. “Thank you, Isaac.”

Isaac took his hand with a friendly grip and led him out of the office. In the lobby, the walls covered with covers of scantily clad men, Ishmael extended his hand again. Isaac took it and, unexpectedly, Ishmael embraced him. “Be well, brother.”

“And you, Ishmael. You are destined for great things. I can see it in your eyes.” Isaac smiled, his eyes twinkling with compassion and optimism. It was the most beautiful thing Ishmael had seen in months.

“I’ll see you when I return?” Ishmael asked hopefully as he got in the elevator.

Isaac said nothing. He just watched as the doors closed and Ishmael hurtled back to the street.