Porn Star Problems

I moved to New York in the death throes of a bad relationship. He was my college boyfriend and we started dating when I was twenty. He was charismatic and outspoken, he seemed smart and he was really, really tall. In addition to all that, he could dress himself competently so I pretty much thought he was perfect. As I matured a little, I realized the things you like in college (or on “asshole vacation,” as I like to call it) shouldn’t be the things you like as an independent, free-thinking adult with a real-life job and real-life responsibilities. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be if you plan on doing any developing as a person.

At about twenty-two, I noticed that he told a lot of lies about himself to seem less boring and cowardly. He lied about people he’d been with; he lied about drugs; he lied about getting into an Ivy League school (and going there, becoming addicted to painkillers and dropping out). Moreover, I realized that he made all those racist jokes because he was actually a racist and not, I guess, the cute college kind? A polo racist? I figure you don’t really understand that people can be evil in college—or that you can only know in a limited way—because it’s such a contained little terrarium where everyone is entitled and depraved and self-involved. While we were in college, a lot of the things he said just made him seem provocative and unapologetic, but then two years later I had graduated and moved to the city to follow my dreams and I had an actual job, and I’m spending my Saturdays at Laundromats and fretting over bills and the stove’s broken again and there’s no heat until the fifth and on top of that, I’m commuting every morning with someone who’ll scream, “Go back to Mexico!” at a woman whose stroller happens to be in his way and then in a terrible moment of clarity you realize it’s not edgy anymore.

I graduated college in Maryland and moved to New York and really, to this guy’s credit, I doubt I would have had the backbone to move to New York by myself because I was a coward, too, and that might have had something to do with our initial attraction. We found a place in Brooklyn and moved in with a mutual friend so we could split a little two-bedroom between three people. It was pretty run-down but the rent was cheap and it was on a busy street, which was important because I’m from Northern California and thus afraid of my own shadow.

I moved to New York thinking I was going to land a publishing job right away and then pretty soon I’d be going up and down escalators in Rockefeller Center wearing smart skirt suits, performing cryptic operations on my smart phone and making deals and drinking martinis at lunch and in my spare time I’d write important literary novels. Within a few years we’d land an apartment with exposed brick and exposed wooden beams and anything that could be exposed would be exposed because that’s how you know you’ve made it and maybe I’d have a kid or something but I’d also be rich enough to have a personal trainer and private chef so the kid wouldn’t ruin my body. Then I’d work from home and make a living off serious novels, while freelancing a bit in independent literary journals for the prestige. This was my two-year plan. Which is to say, the great lyric justice awaiting college students is that when reality eviscerates them, it’s pretty much their own fault.

Before I knew it, I was waiting tables again, much as I’d hated doing so in college. Conveniently, I found a popular bar/ restaurant near my apartment. Sadly, the owner was a coked-up psychopath who used the restaurant’s large party spaces to conspicuously cheat on his very pregnant wife. The owner wasn’t around so often, thankfully, but the restaurant’s general manager was even more loathsome: this guy, Ian, was a repulsive toad with a heaving gut who wore tight leather vests and had a wallet chain despite being lodged somewhere in his forties. He looked like the sort of guy whose penis had a wallet chain. He was bald and so clung relentlessly to his verdant soul patch, which he cultivated with such adoration you’d think it was some kind of virility god to which he made BBQ sauce sacrifices.

This is an excerpt from Ashley Cardiff’s Night Terrors: Sex, Dating, Puberty and Other Alarming Things. It is out today—Bust mag gave it 5 out of 5 breasts!—and distributed by all manner of book purveyors.

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Once, Ian told me without prompting about a time he went to Vegas with his girlfriend and made a few grand gambling and so procured a prostitute from one of Vegas’s many prostitute stables. The telling of the story culminated with him suddenly donning a blissful faraway expression and saying of the occasion, “I didn’t touch. I just enjoyed.” I would have thrown up in his face were I not so perplexed by the fact he had a girlfriend. Honestly, though, self-esteem being what it is, men like this will always be able to find people who seek their validation. When I say “men like this,” I mean you could smell his perineum through his jeans.

I worked and I got my ass and ego handed to me every day, as being a waiter is basically eating shit professionally. I had no real “in” to the publishing industry and my months of waiting tables in that hellish place were occasionally interrupted by applying to any job in the industry regardless of its appeal. Life was pretty bad as, I mentioned, I was too cowardly to leave a relationship that was long sour, too poor to support myself if I did, too tired and lazy when I got home from my shitty job to commit to finding a way out. Finally, months later, through a miraculous and ultimately irrelevant chain of events, I was offered an interview at a major publishing house. It was in editorial (what I wanted), however it was in the children’s department. I figured more absurd things had happened.

I was so excited and so certain that it would finally be my foot in salvation’s door, my rescue from the constant sexual harassment and emotional degradation at the restaurant. I’d never have to watch the owner grope the pairs of Wild Turkey “promo sluts” (his term) in fishnets and knee-high boots and denim miniskirts who’d sit in his lap at the bar and do shots while he held their hands behind their backs and his hugely pregnant wife looked at paint swatches for the nursery in their apartment directly above. Really, the owner’s tableau of coke and ego-induced self-destruction paled in comparison to being within fifty feet of Ian as he ate his nightly pulled pork sandwich, during which he spent most of the consuming part trying to extract the juice and gristle from under his permanently dirty fingernails and I swear to God the whole spectacle was so repulsive it almost made me a celibate vegetarian. Then I would go home and my unemployed live-in boyfriend would tell me how much he hated Polish people and wonder why I didn’t want to sleep with him.

A lot was riding on this interview. I didn’t think I had it in the bag, but I thought I had a solid chance. I put on my nicest department store skirt suit, which my mother had purchased for me in middle school, and I got on a subway to Midtown Manhattan. Before I knew it, I was looking up at the seemingly tallest building I’d ever seen and the street smelled of meat skewers and gasoline, subway vapor and aggression. A few minutes into the interview (in which I was asked about current trends in the publishing industry and stuttered in response because I was uncertain why they expected a classics major to know anything like that, and, gosh, they didn’t expect me to read books by living authors, did they?) the HR woman conducting the whole humiliating shitshow looked me square in the eyes, folded her hands primly and said, “I don’t mean to be a dream ruiner, but…” and I kind of blocked everything out after that. I do remember she had matched her cardigan to her garish pink skirt. I also remember that look on her face: one of almost astonishing, supreme smugness. In that moment, hands folded, leaning back just so, this horrible little woman revealed herself to be more than ecstatic to dream ruin, that in fact this exact thing was her only pleasure. She meant to be a dream ruiner, and she loved it. Her features were so strung against the bones by a life of acrimony punctuated by the occasional opportunity to destroy the dreams of young morons (like myself) that her face had actually crushed into itself, giving her the appearance of such bitterness that she looked like a cat’s anus in a sweater set.

I ran out of the interview and toward the subway and here I should mention that it was more than one hundred degrees and that being outside in the dead of summer in New York is like dog-paddling through a steaming hot bowl of chicken and stars and, moreover, I was wearing nylons and a cheap, ill-fitting rayon suit. I stumbled underground and onto the platform. There, waiting for a train back to my neighborhood, I began to shake and fight back the tears as I realized there was no light at the end of the tunnel, and all I had to go home to was a racist boyfriend without a job and my own job where I endured hours with my portly general manager who smelled like a corpse left out in the sun and begged me to tell him what kind of porn I watched. It was at this moment that defeat and heat exhaustion and hopelessness collapsed onto each other and I doubled over a trash can on the subway platform and threw my guts up. In front of fifty people.

As a sidenote, if you’d like to know how I’ve since understood the word “dehumanizing”: it’s throwing up in sweat- soaked rayon amid dense humidity on a packed subway platform while an impish stranger performs “Hotel California” on the pan flute for quarters and derision. To this day, I can’t listen to that song. Which isn’t that bad, I guess, because the Eagles are terrible. At least he didn’t destroy something good.

I started back toward Brooklyn and sat there on the train suffocating in my own BO, with the taste of sour vomit in my mouth. Because I lived in a notoriously hard-to-access part of the borough, it took three trains to get anywhere. On the second train of the journey, I experienced the one and only time I have ever been verbally harassed on a subway in New York, by two boys in their early twenties who decided to discuss their plans for me should the train empty out. I listened to them tell elaborate stories of “spread[ing me] open” over the seats and how they were going to “choke” me on their cocks as I tried not to cry because I didn’t want them to have the satisfaction of thinking they were the reason.
When I reached the third and final platform, waiting for the last train, I watched a baby rat teeter on the tracks either trying to walk in earnest for the first time or, perhaps more likely, ravaged by the terminal stages of rabies. It was at this point I noticed a blond girl who was also watching the baby rat. She was wearing a figure-hugging tank top and tight jeans, with all of her very alternative tattoos on display. They were mostly old-school, flair-style pinup stuff, some logos belonging to punk bands since disbanded or on major labels, some characters from cult films, some counterculture symbols like the anarchy “A” or the iron cross or the Apple logo, I don’t remember which, and some dinosaurs and koi because people are boring in the same way everywhere. I don’t really remember her tattoos because I most indelibly remember her necklace: a fist-sized orb of amber, in which a scorpion had been preserved Jurassic Park-style.

She noticed me looking at her and I guess she must have noticed me looking at the baby rat, too, because she motioned to its convulsing below and said, “It’s kind of cute, right?” And I nodded and forced a slight smile and looked away because I was in such a state of anxiety and panic and self-pity that if I had to even think about her faux tough-girl accessories and leather cuffs and facial piercings, I was going to throw one of us in front of the next train.

So we waited. And we waited some more. After about thirty minutes on that airless platform under stifling humidity, I found myself making eye contact with her again because I could not shake the sense that she was starting to look worse off than me. Her posture had slacked and her movements were darting.

She said in my direction, “I’m going to be late for work. I’m fucked,” and I nodded again and looked away again because I had a shift at the restaurant that night, meaning my only foreseeable solace was scrubbing the taste of vomit out of my mouth. As far as I was concerned, she and her leather cuffs and Tim Burton tattoos could fuck right off because I had my own problems.

Minutes ticked on and ticked on and trains came intermittently across the station, all going in the opposite direction. On our side, people just slumped further and sweated more. I took off my jacket and looked at the baby rat for a while and thought it had so little control of its movements it was probably going to be struck by the train if the motherfucker ever pulled into the station but at least that baby rat would never resign itself to splitting the rent with a mate it used to love but now realized the mate in question genuinely believed “black people are poor out of laziness.”

At least, I thought amid the white squalls of self-pity and self-loathing, rabies is supposed to be a fun high before it consumes your brain and drags you to certain excruciating death, right? Like whippits? Anything sounded better than standing there, bloated under my sweat stains in air so hot you could actually hear it hover around you.

We looked at each other again because the wait on the platform had now reached about forty-five minutes. At this point, her expression was one of total anguish. She seized on the eye contact and said, “I can’t fucking believe this. I’m going to get fired for being late again. It’s my third strike. I’m fucked. I’m going to lose my job. I need this fucking job.”
A voice came over the loudspeakers and announced that there would be no northbound train service and it was all canceled, and the voice did not address why they couldn’t have told us that forty-five minutes ago and have a nice life, suck their dicks and so forth.

Here she looked as though she were about to cry, which would have been funny in light of all her bad-girl accoutrements, but I didn’t take any pleasure in it. She said, to no one in particular, “Oh my God. I’m so fucked. I don’t know how to get there. I’ve only gotten there on the train.”

I paused. I sighed and I asked, “Where do you work?”

She said the name of a restaurant about eight blocks in a straight line from my apartment and she actually did look worse off than me and—since apparently I had to walk the rest of the way too—I told her I was going that direction and she could come along with me. She thanked me profusely and we ascended the staircase into the midday sun. We walked along for a while in silence because based on our appearance—me in that sweat-soaked suit with a string of imitation pearls and her in tattoos and combat boots—our only commonality was finding the dying baby rat cute. We looked like such an odd couple that I became self-conscious and tried to make conversation. Luckily, she was pretty chatty and the moment I opened my mouth, she kind of launched into her life story.

She was from Detroit and had just moved to New York City. She was twenty-two years old and hadn’t gone to college because she had a good bartending job in Detroit and figured it was better to pay rent than go into debt for a future that wasn’t really guaranteed and she was kind of done with the educational system, she said, after dropping out of high school (“Like, I’m never going to actually use algebra, you know?”) but she’d broken up with her live-in boyfriend after a year together and ran away to New York to become a tattoo artist or do piercings or something like that and while she was training, she’d gotten a job as a line cook at a counterculture Mexican restaurant to make ends meet. She really liked the job and boasted about how she could make an amazing seitan burrito but it was so far away from her apartment that she’d been late twice already and the joint had a draconian three- strikes policy.

Then we walked for a bit more in silence and I realized I was walking alongside a total stranger and the situation was kind of like talking to people on airplanes, insofar as regular rules of polite conversation don’t really apply because you’re almost certainly never going to see that person again. She was already pretty open about her life so I kind of just went with my curiosity and said, “Why did you break up with your boyfriend?”

“Because,” she said, “he found out I did some movies before we got together.”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you ever heard of—” and here she said the name of one of those alt-porn sites along the lines of Suicide Girls that all employ the naming convention of a modifier with negative connotations followed by a noun with comparatively innocent ones like Misbehaving Valedictorians or Needle Drug Masseuses or Girls Who Never Had Supportive Teachers and Now Fuck on Camera. I don’t know. All the names are stupid.

I nodded.

“So I did a few scenes for them, to like, pay the rent, you know? It was like a week of work and it’s like, here’s six hundred dollars, and that’s a lot of money in Detroit, not like here.” She laughed and I kind of laughed too because all New Yorkers get that joke. “And it was like, whatever, you know, it was like me and another girl in like a dentist’s office and we’d eat each other out and then fuck this guy in the chair. It was totally whatever, you know? Like, nothing weird. And I just did it because it’d be like rent for a couple months for two fucking scenes. And then I met this guy at the place where I was tending bar and we started hooking up or whatever. And, like, I knew that he was like a really good guy because he went down on me before I ever gave him a blowjob, you know?”

I nodded some more and was happy my eyes were completely obscured by running mascara and sweat, otherwise they’d probably be pretty wide.

“So we hooked up a couple times and then he started coming to the bar and we’d just fuck in the bathroom while I was on shift. It was like love at first sight, you know? He was so fucking amazing. We got this place in my favorite part of Detroit, it’s like the best neighborhood. And we were near my bar and this little park and it had, like, a dining room and everything. The bathroom even had one of those things that like shoot water.”

“A bidet?”

“Yeah. Pretty fucking cool, right?”

It was at this point in her story that I was struck by her describing a time in her life that sounded a lot happier than mine, which I found off-putting.

“We broke up because one night we were watching porn. You ever do that? Like watch porn while you’re fucking? Guys are really into it. And I was like, wanna see something really hot? So, we’re like sitting at the computer and I’m in his lap, riding him, and I go to the website to show him some of my shit, you know, and it starts and he just fucking flips out and has a total shit fit. He starts screaming at me and asking about how much I’ve done and I told him like three or four scenes and he’s like, calling me a whore and, like, a lying bitch.”

At this point I think I said something like, “What an asshole!” even though the story had become so incomprehensible that I didn’t really understand if this was real or if I was hallucinating from the heat. I only suspected it was real because she was talking so loudly and we were walking past this park and people with kids were looking at us.

“He walked out and when he finally talked to me again, he broke up with me and kicked me out. He didn’t want to be with some whore that like, any of his friends could go online and pay twenty bucks for a membership and watch me get fucked, you know? So he fucking kicked me out. It was like he ripped my heart out and stepped all over it and I don’t even understand what the big deal was because it was like a couple scenes, like a couple threesomes and some facials, you know? I mean, it’s not like I was a porn star or anything. So I was like, fuck it, I’m gonna move to New York City and learn how to fucking tattoo because what do I have to lose? The love of my life just fucking kicked me to the curb for doing a couple scenes for money. When I got here, I got this necklace to remind me to take care of myself,” and she held up the heavy chain with the preserved scorpion, “because people are like, poisonous, you know? It’s like, you have to protect yourself. Some people are predators and some people just don’t do that shit. So it was like, either I fucking carve it on my arm or I get the necklace.”

I was nodding and looking ahead silently because this was a lot to take in. It was a weird moment for me, because I knew in a more vigilant state I would have been completely fascinated by her distinction between “being a porn star” and “filming a few scenes to pay the rent,” as if the connotations of “porn star” are somehow more sinister than fucking a few strangers in a dentist’s chair on camera. For six hundred dollars. It sounded like the difference between being a serial killer and one count of vehicular manslaughter eventually thrown out of court.

In fact, this distinction was so bizarre that I would have probed for further explanation had I not caught my stupid weak heart swelling up with sympathy for her. It sounded like she loved this guy and even though she mentioned nothing they had in common but sex, she and I didn’t have much in common either and here I was kind of amazed by her. She had her heart broken and got dumped by someone she loved and fled everything and everyone she knew to get away from her misery. She, unlike me, actually had the backbone to pick up and leave and move to New York to pursue her dreams by herself and here she was, trying to eke it out as a line cook making alt-tacos so she could pay rent until she was done with her tattoo apprenticeship. At least in one pretty explicit way she was a lot better than me. Compared to her, I was just a coward who needed to be helped along through every significant life stage.

Then she blinked. “What about you, where are you from?” Like it was the next step in polite conversation.

I told her, “California,” and it was right about then we came to my block. I pointed her in the direction of her restaurant and told her that in a few blocks, she’d start to recognize her surroundings and then she’d come to the exit of her usual subway station. It would be four blocks from there, as she knew. She thanked me with a big, weird hug and told me to come by sometime for vegan fajitas her treat and I told her I would even though I knew I wouldn’t because this whole ordeal wouldn’t be half as surreal if I ever saw her again. So I didn’t.

It was then as I was walking down the trash-strewn street toward my apartment that I realized human suffering as it pertains to love and sex is universally awful. Sure, we came from completely different circumstances with completely different goals and frames of reference and ways of seeing the world, but at the end of the day, I was pretty heartbroken and trapped in a loveless relationship while she was pretty heartbroken having just escaped a volatile one. We were both in New York City in our early twenties, self-obsessed and pursuing stupid dreams without ever really stopping to ask why we needed to be in New York and paying New York rents to do so, but the city has a crafty way of distracting you from ever wondering that because it’s too busy throwing insane situations like this exact one in your face.

I’m still kind of unclear on how the distinction between doing porn and being a porn star is more than a semantic one (maybe), but I definitely don’t think you should make people who do porn feel bad about themselves. While we’re at it, though, maybe don’t do porn no matter how much it pays the rent because it sounds like that shit can really come back to haunt you. So. Have some foresight. I think.





Ashley Cardiff is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her first book, Night Terrors, is a collection of essays about sex and dating–it also happens to be out today. You can follow her on Twitter here, if you want. Art by Daniel Spencer.