Saturday, December 17, 2011

Social Associates

Everyone calls me Sarah. It's a nice, all-American name, and I don't ever give out my real name anyway, so it'll do. It's something you have to do when you're in my trade, going by an alias. I have a few others, but I try not to let them cross paths. You understand.

I know it seems a little fake, maybe a little artificial to have no one know my real name, but I can't say that I chose a very well-respected career. I hear about that from my mother all the time -- couldn't you have been a manager, like your sister? Something respected and reputable? I'd sooner have you work in McDonald's than what you do now. Yeah, that kind of sentiment. It's really common; I hear it all the time, sometimes even from my clients. Those ones, they know what they're doing; they just like to feel morally superior and get on their high horse about having a "real job." Well, they should take a good look at themselves, you know? They're the ones paying me.

My most expensive client was one of these. Let's call him Jack -- you know I'll be changing names for this, right? Good. So, there's Jack, he's a bachelor with a really cushy loft down in the metro area. Nice place, big, he even has a full bar in there. Jacuzzi tub. Big screen TV. You know what he paid me? Six hundred dollars an hour, plus gas and parking. That guy could have anyone in the world with a snap of his fingers, and he pays me more for sixty minutes than most people in my line of work make in a day. Now that's what I call desperate.

Jack himself wasn't as much of a surprise, though. You know what really got me when I started this job? The married guys. I know, I know, it's really common, but I honestly figured that the guy has a wife, sometimes kids, what does he need me for? They're always there, why bother spending the money? I guess I never understood that -- not being a guy, or married, either -- but honestly I always found them to be the most sad cases. They pay a lot, and they want the least from me. Just something normal. Sometimes they even take me to dinner, wine and dine, the whole stereotype. It's kind of sweet, in a weird way. They're nice guys; they just have a hole in their life right now.

Do I ever stay with them after that? What's that mean? If they're paying, I'll stay.

Oh, you mean like that. You mean, do I sleep with them? What do you take me for, a whore?

No, of course I'm not. Wait, was that what -- never mind. Look, the whole "social prostitute" thing is really a bad way to phrase it. I don't sleep with anyone. I don't give blowjobs, handjobs, any kind of jobs, nothing like that. Not to say the guys don't sometimes ask for it.

We ran out of things to call ourselves, because the prostitutes took all the good names first. "Companion for hire" was a good one, until we realized people thought we were friends with benefits or professional arm candy. So we settled on "social associate." I don't really like it, but it was as free from innuendo as we could manage.
What do I do, if I don't sleep with the guys? Well, like I said, we're not whores. A social associate is a friend for hire. People pay us, and we do whatever friendly activities they want. Just yesterday, one of my clients paid me to go hiking with her.

It's not all it's cracked up to be. You get some pretty irritating cases sometimes. There was the one guy, a nineteen-year-old college student, who paid me to sit in his dorm room with him and watch him play World of Warcraft for four hours. I was having a low day, so I took the job, but I swear I nearly fell asleep.

That's bad protocol, falling asleep. You're supposed to look interested and intrigued at all times. That's the reason a lot of people hire me -- because no one else wants to buddy with them. Think of it this way: you hire a friend because you're one of three things. You're really boring, or you're annoying, or you're socially incompetent. I'll leave out the married guys and girls, because they mostly just want a break from family life, poor sods.

So the World of Warcraft guy, that's all he wanted to talk about. He sat there for four hours just telling me all about how fun the game was, what kind of raids he went on. I prep for every appointment by reading up on what the client likes to do, and not just skimming it, either. I have to learn about it. If they play basketball, I have to learn to shoot a basket. I actually played the game for probably twenty or so hours and figured out how it worked, leveled up my character some, so I could talk shop with him. But it turns out that was all he wanted -- someone in person who could talk about his hobby with him to no end. Guy didn't even let me play a while.

Your normal friend doesn't put up with that. You have to put effort into a friendship, and that usually includes shutting your mouth when the other person wants to say something, or talking about something they want for a change. Not so with me -- I'm every fanboy's dream, because they can go on and on without me so much as opening my mouth if they don't want me to, and I say all the right things to them. I guess I'm the world's worst enabler, telling them that all their social screwups are the right thing to do.

I study the cues, you see. People who actually want a two-sided conversation act very differently from people who don't. You can tell by the flow of their words and the look on their face. Some people want real conversation. Some people, they want me to talk about them, ask them questions about themselves, give them excuses to do all the socially irritating things they have to keep away when they're with normal friends, like talk endlessly about their own life. It's all the indulgence minus the guilt and consequences. Some people want me to shut up because they just want a body to talk to. I swear, sometimes I could put a cardboard cutout of me in the room, and the client would just sit and talk to it without getting bored.
I can't read or text, though, because that makes me look distracted. I have to sit and be attentive, nod and say affirmative phrases at the right time. You have to look like you're genuinely enjoying the situation, no matter how dull.

What's the worst situation I've been in? Well, you won't believe me if I tell you, but here it is.

I was paid a decent mid-range price -- 150 an hour, not bad at all -- to show up at this really nice suburban house for a little while one afternoon. I showed up to see a sparkling white fence, a paved stone driveway, two garages, nice four-bedroom house, the works. There was a basketball hoop outside that actually looked used. It was a real cozy family place. Even the bushes were neatly trimmed and looked like someone tended to them on a regular basis. I can barely remember to do my laundry; who has time to painstakingly trim the hedges?

I knocked on the door, and a woman answered me who looked about fifty, a young fifty, but still over the hill. She motioned me in. Mom must have been a real late bloomer, or she adopted, because the kid playing inside looked about ten, eleven if you squinted hard enough. Her husband, she said, was at work. Dad worked overtime while Mom stayed home most days.

She took me into the kitchen, offered me a sandwich and some juice, and I asked when we were going out. Usually in these cases, you get the situation where Mom is sick of babysitting, and she wants some time off with another female, so she calls me in.
Nope. She pulls me gently into the living room and introduces me to the kid. Mutters into my ear not to talk about my job, just about what he wants to talk about. Then she scoots out the door and leaves me alone in her pristine whitewashed house with a very confused-looking kid.

I introduced myself the way I usually do for people with limited faculties -- I get hired sometimes to help out the mentally ill, and don't you laugh. Something like, "Hi there, I'm Sarah. I'm a friend; what's your name?"

I can't tell you his name, but we got along pretty well. He had some really nice train sets, those old heirloom types that you get for real collectors. My brother had one of those. They're really high-quality, and it takes a long time to wear them out. So we played with the train set while Mom went to the theater.

He was a pretty ugly kid, I'll give you that, but in the end we got along pretty well. He was smart, and he had a lot of good books, and I've got a weakness for a great read. He always had a sad look about him, though; I figured he was just tired from doing his normal kid-ly stuff, and that this was Mom getting her time off by hiring a babysitter. Still, it was a little confusing that she couldn't just take him to Grandma's, or call in a local college student to watch the kid.

A few days later, she calls me in again, this time for the better part of a Saturday. That's really expensive, you know, renting me for a day. Well over a grand in fees, and then you have to feed me if it's a situation where I can't take a lunch break or go eat with you. Junior wanted leftover lasagna at home, so I had some too, and we played in the kiddie pool Mom kept in the back yard. He was a good kid, always polite, and he even knew what to do when I slipped and skinned my knee on the back porch. He was out the door with some peroxide and a big Bandaid before I could reach for the hose to wash the scrape. Didn't even flinch at the blood, brave kid. I was scared of blood when I was little. He kissed the bandaid and called me his "best friend in the world." Can't say I wasn't a little flattered; I mean, who thinks their babysitter is that awesome, right?
Anyway, a few weeks went by, and I paid a lot of my rent off Mom's fees. To this day I wonder where she got all the cash; they seemed like they were reasonably well-off, but not filthy rich. Certainly not the types to blow a couple thousand a week on a fancy babysitter. I wonder how many pennies she pinched to pay me. Still, I was confused as to why she needed such an expensive nanny, so I finally did what I almost never do -- I cornered her and asked why she hired me in the first place. That's kind of crass, you know? You don't ask someone why they're desperate enough to hire someone like me.

Turns out the kid didn't have any friends at all. He was the really awkward type, and he got picked on because he was short and not particularly appealing to the eye, you know what I mean? No one liked him at school; kids beat him up for his lunch money; that sort of thing. So his mom did what a desperate mom might do -- she paid for him to finally have a friend, a real one who knew all the right words and who could make him feel good about himself. And then, of course, she didn't tell him that I was paid. And instructed me not to talk about it.

I couldn't tell Junior; it was bad for business to not listen to Mom after she paid me. She could go off and tell everyone I ruined the experience and wasn't a good associate. So, I had no choice but to treat this kid well in silence, and he thought I was the best thing since sliced bread. He was so thrilled to finally have a buddy.
We played with that train set so much that its wheels fell off. I glued them back on more times than I have fingers to count with. When they wouldn't glue back, Mom got him an RC car, and we played with that. We couldn't go to the park -- for some reason he didn't like it there, I think it was the bullies -- so we mostly stayed in his yard. Once I came around and his dad was building a swingset, from scratch and all that. Two by fours everywhere. He was putting all his soul into every hammer swing. I found out later that Dad was getting money from some guys at work to pay for another one like me, a younger man this time, to hang out with the kid once a week for a little while. Pity money, really, and gifts from his boss for good work and overtime.

It was heartbreaking. I mean, what kind of kid grows up only having paid friends? His parents clearly wanted the best for him, and they loved him a lot. I remember his dad worked all night on that swingset. Every time the kid said he wished he had more friends to come play on it, I saw Dad tear up. It was so hard to watch, really, it was.

I couldn't help wondering every time I drove up the nice stone driveway, what happens when he Googles my name and sees my website and my ad? When he realizes that his best friend in the world, really doesn't care very much about him, just about the cash?
It sounds terrible, but it's true -- you can't care about people in this line of work. You have to get used to dealing with the most teeth-grinding specimens of humanity, and you can't get emotionally invested. You have to act the part but never be it. The second you start caring, it will screw up your schedule, you'll relax prices, you'll do more than you were paid for, you'll act inappropriately, you'll take everything personally. You won't deliver the experience you promised. It'll all go downhill.

What happened to the kid? Well, I'm not sure if this is a happy ending, but the whole family up and moved to New York. I don't know if it was the city or what. I bet Mom hired another like me there. I wonder how much the kid cried when he saw I was replaced. I still think Mom had the wrong idea. I got letters from this kid to the PO box I use for client mail, but they stopped after he moved.
I tell you what I'll do, though. If I ever quit this job, I'm going to find that kid and see what happened to him. Maybe he got his teeth straightened and his face restructured and looks like a real beauty now. Maybe he found friends who like him just the way he is. Maybe he's crying alone in a corner.

Maybe we can be friends, this time without the money.

(This is not in the Light universe.)

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