To begin with:
Cassandra had four separate plots of land
where she wanted to plant flowers.
She called them “A, B, C, and D.”
In each plot, she placed two different flowers.
She had a talent, her mother would say, for shining brilliant in situations. It was not like walking into a room and capturing the eye of everyone there; It was not like smiling and making everyone smile right along (even though they had no idea what they were smiling about). It went far beyond the dictionary definition of “Charisma.” Cassandra’s mother called it a gift of “radiance” and, when on, it could remind people what a wonder it is to be alive.
Her mother first noticed the talent when taking her daughter to swim at Lake Michigan. It was at the lake that she hated her disability the most. She never knew fear until the first moment she watched her eight-year old run across the beach as she could only sit back in her wheelchair and watch.
But while her mother hated the separation on those moments, Cassandra sought it. It became a reward for her. The kind given after keeping her room clean for five days straight or for helping her mother back in her chair after a fall. Her mother cursed how those incidences seemed to humble her (at least in her mind). The moments when she had to rely on her daughter, her little, tiny daughter, to save her.
If the car accident that crippled the mother taught the two anything, it was the ability to adapt; and adapt is exactly what both of them did. They adapted to losing Cassandra’s father. (Her mother never had the courage to tell her daughter her husband used to beat her. She decided to let her have the delusion of gold around his memory.) They adapted to Cassandra’s mother’s handicap. And Cassandra’s mother adapted to trying to hold her daughter as close as she possibly could, as Cassandra adapted to enjoying the escape from her mother’s suffocating love.
So going to the beach became that for Cassandra, an escape from her mother and the life back home and what she faced every day. (Even though, young Cassandra would have never admitted it, she was quietly embarrassed by her mother’s handicap and would rarely invite her friends over.) The lake was a ritual as rich as entering a church. Like placing holy water on her head, every step for this child was important.
Step 1- Getting mama out of the car.
This step took the longest.
Well, it felt that way for Cassandra. The beach was right there staring at her! How could she not feel the pressure to move faster, faster?
Step 2- Leaving mama prepared.
Her mother had a full collection of supplies that had to be double-checked. Batteries in her megaphone? Check. First Aid Kit? Check. Binoculars? Check.
Step 3- Make sure mama’s chair is in a good position.
This was very crucial; if her mother couldn’t see her, Cassandra’s time in the water was done. So it was very important to her that she had the best view of every aspect of the beach.
Step 4- The slow walk.
Cassandra’s mother always yelled at Cassandra when she ran. Looking back at her youth, Cassandra believed this was all related to her mother’s inability to run herself. But running on the beach could spell disaster for the day. A simple sprint could call for an end to her cleansing in the waves.
…And yet, Cassandra didn’t mind torturing her mother when she met the water.
Step 5- Going under.
Cassandra always went completely under water first. And she would hold herself under… and under… and under…
She loved the silence. She loved the isolation… She loved the quiet and she hated coming up for that first breath. Her mother hated this game of Cassandra’s. There was many a day that she called her daughter back to the car because of that disappearance. To Cassandra, this was as close to the feeling of immortality she had ever felt.
Cassandra was making a “Hate” list again. Even though she originally got the idea a few years back for such a list from a young couple that she once knew (and they rarely did anything with too serious a thought behind it), she took the idea and ran in a different direction. This is how it worked out:
First she would begin with a “Like” list. In that list, she would put everything that made her smile. This sometimes would take hours, absolute hours. Then once she knew her psyche was drained, she began her “Hate” list.
This practice was all built around a promise she made herself a long time ago. If there was more on the “Hate” list than on the “Like” list, she would take her own life.
For a few years, it was very close, almost too close. Once, she was saved only by the word “banana” on her “Like” list. (She used to love eating bananas. Once as a child, she even asked her mother for a banana tree. When her mother said no, she planted a batch of them in the ground in the backyard, but nothing grew. Ever since that failure, Cassandra had been intrigued by doing a garden right.) It was weeks before she could look at a banana without releasing a deep, rich grin.
Starting the “Hate” list was always easier for her. It always began with the same three words:
BEING A PROSTITUTE.
It was the only thing on the list that she put in full caps.
It wasn’t her first choice for a career, far from it. The full extent of desperation broke her down to this life.
She was penniless then.
She was lost.
She didn’t know anyone in Amsterdam and her mother was her only contact at home and no longer responded to her desperate calls. What started as an exciting post-college trip through Europe became a game for survival.
Her career began simply as a “Just this once” thought. It paid for food. It paid for a room. Then it changed over time from a “Just this once” to a “Just one more time” to working in a brothel to finally where she was today. A successful owner of her own brothel with another “Hate” list in her hands wondering how she let her life get to this point.
Cassandra had been hurt, humiliated and broken more times than she could count; and she had also hurt, humiliated and broken others (sometimes at their request). She experienced a world that any other would need a therapist for just an hour of her day, but to survive a code of silence was needed. It was always someone else, that Cassandra, not her hidden and true Cassandra. It could be said that her real job was protecting her soul and pretending that it was safe from the pains and memory her body was collecting.
None of the other girls at Cassandra’s House of Pleasure knew about the list and Cassandra’s test of faith except Alisha. Of course, that knowledge was given to Alisha by chance. Cassandra would never have brought it forward herself; she couldn’t allow herself to seem weak. No! This was her brothel. This was her business. These women put their trust in Cassandra and the last thing she could do was allow them the thought that their boss was weak and suicidal.
Alisha was smart enough not to bring up that she knew about the lists to Cassandra (even though part of her once thought it was a subconscious cry of help from Cassandra that she even found out). It was actually Alisha’s brains that saved her from the “daily grind” that the other girls had to deal with to earn their keep or be thrown out (sometimes a little too aggressively). When Cassandra lost her last accountant (the female from the young couple that was mentioned earlier), Alisha stepped forward. And, suddenly, everything changed for her.
Alisha could laugh again.
Alisha could whistle again.
Alisha was probably the happiest accountant in the world and Alisha played the part like a professional. From three calculators to bifocals (she didn’t need) to a pencil holder in her shirt and a brimmed hat, she was an accountant! It surprised her (when dressed in her accounting garb) that men still approached her at the brothel.
Thanks to the great work she did, Cassandra didn’t mind allowing her full reign of the office. Alisha had her own key and she could tell you all the facts Cassandra would probably have liked kept secret. Who made the most money last week? Alisha could tell you that. Who got the best tips? Alisha could have passed that knowledge on. Who charged the most when the doors were closed? Alisha could also throw an answer your way.
Actually, those answers were very easy to come up with. They were all Cassandra.
Alisha also knew everything about every girl in the place. She could tell you where Vicki was from and what she did before moving to Amsterdam (she even had references on her resume). And she could tell you all about Cassandra. She knew Cassandra’s mother was handicapped and hadn’t spoken to her daughter in years. She also knew Cassandra wrote to her mother every Christmas.
She would never get a response.
More importantly (in Alisha’s mind) she knew what Cassandra was doing with her money. And she had quite a lot. Cassandra was making a large fortune. Thanks to her previous accountant’s work, Cassandra’s money had almost doubled. Stock purchases, CDs, and numerous investment schemes were all successful. There wasn’t a bad deal in her entire portfolio.
Everything came up gold.
She also knew what Cassandra was planning when a magic number was reached. When Alisha first discovered the folder, she thought it was just a collection of pipe dreams. Royal Carlton Island, a home on the beach and a garden (Cassandra had a bookshelf of just gardening books in her back closet). Of course, her opinion about the pipe dreams changed when she realized how close Cassandra was to the mark.
That was not an easy thing to discover! Cassandra didn’t just allow the totals of her assets out for anyone to see. It took research and days of discovery. Alisha didn’t mind though. It gave her something to do in the office (as compared to sitting in the parlor with the other girls and watching the Johns arrive). And when the figures all came together, Alisha couldn’t help but whistle out loud.
The magic number was ten million and Cassandra had 9,985,432 collected.
After the initial surprise of the wealth of her boss, Alisha was overcome with a panic she had not felt in years. Cassandra was planning to leave soon. Quickly, Alisha’s mind was filled with nightmare images. The most horrendous one of all: a new boss who would expect her to “perform” again or else. Cassandra didn’t know it (as she was working with a customer upstairs) but she had just become a messiah for Alisha. She was her window of opportunity for recapturing her soul. At that moment, Alisha had to fight herself from running upstairs and openly begging to Cassandra. If she panicked all the other girls would notice. Alisha couldn’t have that. She had to stay in control! Alisha just knew that if she was left behind she would die.
So after two days of planning and preparations, Alisha was ready to talk with Cassandra. It began awkwardly. It began very awkwardly. It began with Alisha breaking one of the first rules of the brothel. She interrupted a sale.
Cassandra was talking with a customer when Alisha walked over. What was she thinking? “Excuse me, Madam.”
Cassandra didn’t know what she was thinking either and the expression on her face clearly showed that. “Alisha?”
It was at that moment that Alisha realized what she did. “Ah… I… Well…” She couldn’t think of anything to say. She looked around at all the other girls. They were all staring at her stunned. You don’t interrupt a sale. It’s just not done. Other girls have been thrown out for lesser actions.
Alisha did the only thing she could think of. It began with her emitting a noise that sounded like “Ep!” and ended with her running into the office and slamming the door behind her.
She had blown it.
She would be left in Amsterdam.
She cried the entire hour it took before Cassandra was free to join her in the office. Cassandra found Alisha sitting at the desk with her head resting on the top. She was shaking. Cassandra slowly walked forward to her and laid her hand on Alisha’s shoulder. A gentle touch, rare, and because of that moving.
Alisha looked up at her. All she could get herself to say was: “Don’t leave me. Please, don’t leave me here.”
The ocean never looked so blue.
That is all Cassandra thought during her plane flight. The stewardess seemed frustrated that Cassandra didn’t want more of the benefits that came with First Class. Movie? Food? Alcohol? She waved them all away.
She once again opened her book, “The New England Guide to Flowers.” Royal Carlton Island was nowhere near New England (even though her realtor told her everyone spoke with a Maine accent) and yet, the style of the pictures enraptured her. She couldn’t touch those gardens. She wanted to do something beyond the look. But what?
She sighed and looked out the window again. She wanted to find meaning, some kind of meaning in her retirement. Yes, that is what she called her life at age 32, a retirement. From here on she would live in peace. She would live how she wanted to.
All she could think of was the water. She used to dream of it in her bed at night. Remembering the beaches with her mother. It, to her, was the purest escape. And, to her, at that moment in the plane with no land in sight, it never looked so blue before.
An orgasm can be very powerful in the right hands, and when a customer is with Cassandra and she is playing her Mozart (Mozart was the only thing that could get Cassandra excited anymore), they never left with a complaint. But customer 7,569 was getting the full treatment.
That was because Cassandra was listening to the overture for The Magic Flute.
Cassandra didn’t tell this lucky man why he was getting this special experience. He was to be her last. This balding, slightly overweight man with a thick mustache and an Italian accent was to be her last customer… ever.
It ended tonight.
Then in one week (after all her business and relations were put in order) she would be gone. While her girls all knew she was leaving, they didn’t know how much she was leaving with (how much of their hard work filled her accounts); well, except for Alisha, but that was unavoidable. That is how Cassandra explained it to herself, but she could trust Alisha. Her trust was based more around the fact that she knew Alisha was too afraid of Cassandra and her power to put her back between the sweaty sheets.
So thanks to Cassandra, Mozart and a silly opera, this customer was about to see God. Or at least that is what he thought. However, nothing could have prepared him for what did happen.
Here it comes…
And it was then that the banner fell! It was attached to the ceiling above the bed and it fell via remote control. It read in big red letters:
Then the girls entered the room. They entered from the door, the window and the bathroom. Vicki carried wine, Cat carried champagne, and the others carried presents… lots and lots of presents.
The John turned to a surprised Cassandra with a large smile on his too-sweaty face. “This is the greatest brothel ever!”
Alisha hated Foosball. She was the only girl in Cassandra’s House of Pleasure that hated it, but she was smart enough not to admit it aloud.
Ever since the Foosball table was purchased for the brothel it had become the most popular form of escape for the girls. Every month began with a Foosball competition. It even had become very popular in the area. Customers were known to come that night just to watch. The girls were that good… well, except for Alisha. She always lost.
Each and every time.
In the last few months it had become a joke. Vicki was the cruelest about it, but it was always easy for Vicki to be cruel about things. Alisha still remembers how hot and red her cheeks got when Vicki declared before the ball dropped that if Alisha got one goal she would give one of the men in the brothel a free blowjob. For two points, two lucky men.
Of course, Alisha didn’t get a point. Vicki was the best of the girls.
So when Cassandra eyed the crying Alisha in her office she knew what she was doing. She knew exactly what she was doing when she said: “You will have to win it.”
It was cruel, but you must view it from Cassandra’s perspective. The last thing she wanted to bring with her to Royal Carlton Island was a reminder of her days in Amsterdam. Alisha would be more than a reminder! She was a possible bomb! One misplaced joke or statement and everything Cassandra was leaving in Amsterdam would return. The last thing Cassandra wanted to do was spend the rest of her life being called a “whore.” No more. She was leaving that here.
Alisha’s face fell. There was no way. There was no way she could beat Cassandra. It was unheard of. Cassandra only lost to Vicki (except when Vicki knew she had to let Cassandra win or find a new brothel to work at).
Cassandra leaned forward and asked slowly, “Do you understand?”
Alisha sniffled, wiped her eyes and nodded.
Alisha nodded again.
“After dinner,” Cassandra said and walked out of the office.
Alisha didn’t spend the rest of the day resting on her laurels. Her determination to turn the odds to her favor surprised Cassandra and confused the girls. It was a busy season in the house that Cassandra built, but that didn’t stop Alisha from demanding Vicki’s help.
“But we have customers,” Vicki said, nodding to the Johns that were getting cleared by the front bodyguards.
“I’ll pay,” Alisha said quickly.
Vicki turned surprised. “What?”
A John was walking towards Vicki. Vicki didn’t even notice. She slowly reached out her hand to Alisha. “You have a deal.” And she walked towards the table with Alisha, leaving a confused John standing in the parlor.
Five hours non-stop.
The girls would go up. They would be playing.
The girls would come down, and they were still playing.
Cassandra couldn’t help but be impressed as she welcomed John after John at the door.
Alisha didn’t take a dinner, neither did Vicki. They stayed at the table. Cassandra almost felt guilty ending dinner. She was going to break that girl’s dreams. She was going to break her heart and she knew it.
But this was her money! She earned it! She bought this brothel (after working in it for a year) and built it up to the important adult establishment it was today. The only brothel that contributed to the local arts. The only brothel to have black tie galas. The only brothel to have been visited by three ambassadors of the United States and diplomats from around the world. She made it into that place. This was her sweat. How could she consider giving so much of it to one other person? Alisha was just her accountant and a slightly above average one at that. She had had better accountants.
She never told Alisha the truth about why she gave her the job. It was because of the complaints.
Customers sometimes would complain about Alisha. For she, the poor girl, was known to cry. And in that business, that world, there was nothing less attractive and less sexy. One man, Cassandra had to give his money back to; it was so embarrassing for Cassandra. Supposedly, he spent his entire hour consoling Alisha.
So when the accountant job once again became available and Cassandra had to decide who to take over, it seemed like a perfect way to kill two birds with one stone, Everyone prospered. Well, until this evening, this moment.
Cassandra sighed and walked over. She walked up behind Vicki, who was covered in sweat and panting. She placed her hand on Vicki’s shoulder.
“It’s my turn to play,” Cassandra said quietly.
Vicki slowly nodded. She then leaned in close and whispered, “She never got a goal.”
That statement gave Cassandra pause. She looked across the table at Alisha. God, she looked determined. Her body glistened from her sweat and her hair was drenched and clung to her forehead. She was playing to recapture her soul and Cassandra knew that look.
She picked up the ball.
She pointed up at the clock. “We play for two quarters, fifteen minutes each.”
Cassandra looked up at the second hand on the clock….
Alisha wasn’t blinking. (God, why won’t she at least blink, Cassandra thought.)
Alisha made eye contact with Cassandra. Cassandra looked away.
Cassandra dropped the ball on the table.
All Alisha could do was close her eyes and swing.
This was one of the hardest moments of Cassandra’s life. She knew each and every one of her girls backwards and forwards and she couldn’t escape the feeling that she was abandoning them. Hey, they choose this life! She didn’t force them into this. They came to her! All she did was give them a place to work, to live. She made them (barely) friends and coworkers. They weren’t her family, they were an expense she had to protect from the rabble.
No, they weren’t her family. They were just coworkers, she told herself again. So why was it so hard? Cassandra forced back a surprised tear and another and another as each member brought forth a present. A tear for each girl, each soul she was leaving behind.
No one deserved this life. No one could do anything that made him or her deserve this life.
By the end of the evening it was all too hard. And when they asked for a toast all she could say was, “Thank you.” Thank you was all she could safely say.
She couldn’t say stay in touch, because she didn’t want to stay in touch. She wanted to leave this life behind. And that meant each and every single member of them. She had to leave them behind.
She couldn’t say she would remember them. That was the last thing she wanted to do. She wanted to forget each and every one of them. She wanted to forget every moment that she lived there, that she worked there. If she could begin her new life with amnesia she would take it happily. That would make it a truly genuine new beginning. A perfect blank slate.
She couldn’t say that they would be ok. She knew that that wouldn’t be the case. Oh, she left Vicki in charge and she was definitely the most able of the group. Maybe she could keep the success Cassandra started, but what then? What would happen when they reach over forty? What would happens when the breasts begin to sag and cruel age seeps in? What happens to them then?
So surrounded by her presents, Cassandra looked at the young faces (each smiling with an oddly innocent piece of hope) and said only, “Thank you” with as much emotion as she could muster.
“Hurry mama. Hurry!” Cassandra pleaded. She had opened the front door of the car and was holding the wheelchair ever so still. She nervously bit the fingernails on her free hand.
“Hold your horses, little one,” her mother panted (it always felt like such a struggle to her). “Hold your horses.”
“But the sun is setting,” Cassandra said. She pointed across the lake. Yes, the sun was setting quickly. Too quickly, in young Cassandra’s belief. Unfair… Just unfair.
Her mother was in the chair… Check… Cassandra quickly pushed the chair away from the van to a more open location. The beach was empty. This was a rare moment and Cassandra didn’t want it to slip away.
“My supplies, honey, my supplies,” her mama said.
Cassandra handed each one to her.
The sun was setting faster. Cassandra glared. It was as if it was teasing her.
“Okay,” her mother said when she had everything on her chair. “Now you be careful…”
It was at that moment that Cassandra did something she had not dared to do in months! She sprinted! She sprinted across that beach with all of her heart!
Behind her she could hear her mother fumbling with the megaphone. Static! Buzz! Clatter! “Cassie! Don’t run!”
Pretend not to hear. Run faster. Faster! Cassandra was almost there. Soon she would be in the waves. Escape was ever so close. Soon… soon… Cassandra was at the water… run… and…
And then it happened.
This was the moment when her mother knew she had a gift. It was also this moment that Cassandra’s mother swore she would never tell anyone. It was also this moment that she made Cassandra swear to forget…. For at that moment, in that sunset, everything glowed gold.
Cassandra looked back at her mother, confused.
Cassandra’s mother dropped her megaphone.
Cassandra was standing on the water.
Cassandra walked off of the jet onto the small airport of Royal Carlton Island. It was hot out. It was sunny. She put on her large, tinted sunglasses. This felt good.
She looked back at the airport staff that were taking her bags out of the back of the airplane. In the distance, Cassandra could see the beach and the houses that lined it. One of those houses was hers. One of those white two-story houses with a porch and a swing was hers. She clutched her gardening book closer to herself. She was holding it like a child holds a beloved stuffed animal.
Cassandra smiled and followed the cart that was carrying her luggage.
Cassandra looked back. She sighed under her breath. Typical. The woman (who was also wearing giant shades now) smiled. “I wanted to carry my own bags.”
“But it’s only to the building there!” Cassandra pointed ahead.
“I know,” the other replied. “I just don’t trust airports.”
Everyone in the company heard that. Royal Carlton Island Airport had probably less than ten full employees. It was a slight awkward silence only made more evident by the motor of the small airplane coming to a halt.
Cassandra sighed. “You know I let you win that game.”
Alisha looked over at Cassandra. Seeing each other there- away from the brothel and the slums, away from the hardest life- they were reborn humans and they felt alive, like finding God.
Cassandra smiled wide.
Alisha smiled back.
She knew Cassandra was lying.