Sex and Success: chapter 1

The last message I received from Yale is sitting next to the first message I got from Seeking Arrangements. It’s exactly what you’d expect, an institution predicated on your desperate need for it. I pick the lesser of two evils; YouTube. It’s later than I’d like to admit– the sun has been up for a few hours now and behind the speckled tortoise shell frames my eyes are burning. But I can’t stop watching youtuber after youtuber talk about the thousands they’ve made from corporate VPs through sex work. My phone vibrates and I can see each of the big four–JP Morgan, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup–  quickly flash across my screen. The youtuber talks about the best way to conceal upwards of $20,000 from the IRS. I double tap back to my messages, and like a eulogy I read them all– every single rejection letter aloud to myself. It’s 8:16AM and I’ve officially been turned down by every office I’ve applied to in the past two weeks. The video changes and this time the youtuber is clacking her bedazzled nails angrily declaring that her sugar daddy won’t give her the corporate convertible. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong. I’ve done everything I was supposed to do. But yet I am so hungry for an opportunity I’d be willing to do anything– even work corporate. 

The day of my graduation, my entire family flew in from Queens. Mother, little sister, aunt, and grandmother all stood tightly crowded around the mural in Willoughby Hall, the one that had my name on it. When I decided to forgo the pre-med program and use my scholarship for fine arts instead, my mother cried. My little sister rubbed her back reassuringly and consoled her as she sobbed in our kitchen. I watched Jessica lean in tenderly, expecting her to say something in my defense; Jess whispered softly in her ears, “Don’t worry, Mom. I can still make you proud. I’ll make all the money.” As if the four hour journey between home and campus hadn’t made us distant enough. Two if you can afford to drive. I tapped my phone screen and checked the time, told them I had to go. I hung up feeling more frustrated and disappointed than when we had first started talking– a lot of our conversations seemed to go that way. Although I was the first one in my family to go to college, I was also the first one to get my nose pierced, experiment with acid, and kiss a girl. I was far from the person they wanted me to be, but I was smart and my scholarship was the only opportunity we had. I tried my best to be good enough for them.

I showed work at SVA when I was barely 19, younger than Keith Haring or Jared Leto. My installation, Love in Nostalgia, toured every art school in the country that year, and even received honorable mention in Bitch Magazine. That helped me land a gig with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where I taught incarcerated teenagers how to paint using watercolor and Strathmore paper. That summer I would watch their young, sweaty fingers grip the paintbrushes and try to guess their age. I’d compare them to Jessica. I’d wonder if they had an older sibling and how old they were and if they knew the assailants I ran from on the red line.  I’d run from so much shit in Queens, the homesickness and the culture clash of being at Yale, living in the Ivory Tower, oftentimes made me forget. In my junior year, only a year before graduation, I created 492 artworks and received critical acclaim for all of them, more than any other student had ever crafted since the school’s inception. One for each person murdered in Chicago that summer. When the Dean first requested that I paint that mural for the class of  2021 in Willoughby Hall I turned them down. I told them my reasons, then he told me their budget. It was my Mother, wanting to show her that my art had value, that finally made me say yes. 

I caressed the frame that held that photo. That was in May, we were already at the end of August. If I couldn’t find a job in two weeks I’d officially be moving back to New York. Moving back in with my family, with their normalcy, with their lack of exposure. When I was at Yale I was proud to be from New York; it was my ice breaker and everyone knew me because I would talk about the city like it was my property. There were other kids from New York at Yale too, Rockefeller descendents that actually owned New York real estate, but I was the one that went to the same high school as Nicki Minaj. I was authentic. I returned the photo to its position on my plastic 3-drawer organizer, covering the torn “sale” sticker that got dirtier each year since I bought it from Target. I was authentically fucked. All summer my roommates were packing their things in storage, getting ready to start at their Uncle’s firm in Hong Kong, or still deciding what offer to accept from which medical school. Just weeks before our lease would expire, they had packed for their vacations and moved on. 

There were photos of us together, shot in the days leading up to graduation, that captured us splayed out on the Quad, the campus lawn haloing our bodies. Sam and I were sticking our tongues out at no one in particular, Dhivia’s grin was just a blur as she swung her arms waving to the cameraman. I couldn’t find the selfies we took after the graduation ceremony ended. Huddled together in that same quad I asked Sam’s parents for their selfie stick and chidded the two of them into using it. “Charlie’s Angels, chola!” I grabbed each of them tight and smiled at the camera. I saw Dhivia’s Instagram story later that day and she said she’d uploaded it to facebook but I never got the message. We had long since stopped speaking to each other, by this time it had gotten too depressing to share each other’s updates. I was alone in the Victorian house, a feeling I used to relish when I was a child but now I felt afraid. I spent more time in my pajamas than I’d like to admit, I slept on potato chip crumbs and ketchup stained sheets. Just when I thought I’d finally reached rock bottom I started watching youtube Kim K impersonators. That eventually led me down an extreme plastic surgery rabbithole and somewhere between the 15” inch waistline fetishists and 48” inch botched butt lifts I found SugarbyChocolate, sugar baby tips from an LA escort. 

I liked her accent, the clean strumming English inflection of a Nigerian girl who had studied abroad. She reminded me of the girls I grew up with in Queens. Yet unlike those city girls, who wore their Michael Kors bags until the seams were unraveling and the straps dug in their shoulders, she took selfies holding YSL purses in the back seat of limousines. I watched her lick the foam off her champagne as she reclined in the bath of her five star hotel. The first time I saw her she was in Dubai, the companion on a business trip her sugar daddy funded. “Here’s what you should know about sex work, especially before deciding to be a sugar baby, Onlyfans star, stripper or whatever you want to be. Consider the danger not of your failure but of your success. What will happen if you become extremely successful, rich beyond recognition, making so much money with so much free time, you look better than you ever have in your life? Would you stop? Could you ever stop yourself from doing sex work?” She’d taken selfies to accompany the post; a lone figure in a black one-piece, back turned to the sky, looking over the edge of the world’s highest infinity pool.