At age 16, my friend Alex got a tattoo: a three-legged octopus. It was a stick 'n' poke done by a train-hopping punk in Oakland. There aren't enough legs because the punk got tired of tattooing -- though Alex tells people that the octopus lost them in a fight.
If the punk had given me a three-legged octopus tattoo, I would have cried. But I wouldn't have asked a train-hopping punk, or anyone else, for a tattoo. Alex was one of the only people I knew who would get a hand-drawn tattoo from a strange crusty -- and laugh when it didn't turn out right.
We are in our twenties now, and Alex is still crossing boundaries as if they don't exist. Last year, Alex began identifying as male in his personal life, though he identified as a woman for his career: a freelance Craigslist dominatrix who occasionally did porn.
Alex used the computers at the public library to arrange meetings with customers. He had his own laptop, but said it was thrilling to arrange something illegal in a place that was both public and wholesome. Alex loved the sounds of librarians whispering while he set up meetings to kick men in the balls while their girlfriends watched.
Alex's first job was a porno shoot in Monroeville. After setting it up, he asked if he could text me when the bus dropped him off at the mall, when the photographer picked him up, when they reached his house, and when he left at the end of the night. To calm me down -- and maybe to calm himself too -- he showed me the photographer's website. There was something comforting about its professional glossiness, the careful composition of the pictures. Even so, that evening I was a nervous wreck. I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that, when arranging to pick him up, the photographer said, "Look for the white van."
I was always the careful one. While Alex made men lick the insides of his shoes, I bussed tables at a fancy restaurant in East Liberty, where the management drew curtains over the windows to dampen the occasional flicker of police lights outside. Server Emily was sweet and helpful. She wore her hair in a bouncy ponytail, her bangs braided and pinned to the sides of her head, like the Swiss Miss girl.
Sometimes, I'd think our jobs had a little in common: Sex workers are basically food-service workers times 10 million. Both jobs demand you bury your true self for the sake of the job. When you work at a restaurant, you save your real self for the kitchen; Alex did things for customers he might not have done for a lover.
But the night of his Monroeville porn shoot, I checked my phone every half-hour, waiting for him to call. Several times, I convinced myself he'd been murdered.
Why didn't I stop him from getting into that van? Or from arranging any of the other jobs? Short of tying him to the bed, I couldn't have. But I also think it would have been wrong.
Many people are forced into sex work, but Alex chose it. He lives in a world that constantly insists he is wrong: "You aren't transsexual, you're just confused; wanting to whip people is unhealthy, it means you've been twisted by childhood trauma." I refuse to join that chorus.
Still, I've learned to be afraid of phone calls. When Alex calls me after a job, in the moment before I pick up, something inside me shivers. I've gotten the bad call before. I could get it again. I know that if that happens, there will only be so much I can do to help -- and it will not be enough.
But an essential part of Alex is that willingness to reject the constraints of the safe, acceptable world. I can't reject that part of him without rejecting all of him. I have to trust that Alex will be able to go on ignoring boundaries, until a more honest culture erases them. Alex blurs the boundaries inside me as well -- between the person who wants her friends to be safe, and the person who thinks it's deeply selfish to stop someone from living the way they want to live because you are scared.
And the night of the porno shoot, at least, everything was fine. He called me from the bus around 1 a.m., giddy with excitement.
"I made three hundred dollars!" he said. "And the guy said he loved my tattoos!"