Hot Sven is the Nordic god of spa technicians and erotic masseurs. B. John Michaels is not a Nordic god, which might not count in his favor in the looks-oriented erotic masseur biz, but Hot Sven exists only as a female fantasy, an unreality, and as a rueful joke in B. John Michaels' repertoire. He thinks about Hot Sven every time he goes to an unknown woman's house for the very first time. B. John knows Hot Sven is what the lonely ladies are hoping they'll get when they call B. John's service to schedule that life-changing first appointment.
"Hot Sven is not gonna show up at your door," B. John scolds. "Does he exist? No. Where is Hot Sven? What is he doing? He must be doing other things."
"He's doing other men."
"He's doing other men," B. John agrees, narrowing his eyes. For B. John Michaels, professional tour guide of the dust bunnies in the female psyche, The Man For Women Only, there is no competition.
B. John Michaels has knowledge that the pretty boys will never learn. Call him Mr. Man, Captain Fantasy, whatever?B. John knows where a fledgling kink queen can get her wings. "She wants to expose herself, but she doesn't know how. Or where. She can't tell her husband, because he'll think she's bad. She wants to spy on people making love, but she lives in Connecticut," he says, making it into a mantra.
"She wants a hot August night, looking for adventure. I know where she can expose herself. I'll stand next to her while she spies, I'll hold her hand and keep her safe. I know all the low-security SROs filled with the most unsuspecting old men, I know all the best keyholes. Everything in the city. I can take her there. No baggage. And I can redivert negative energy with my touch."
"So you're the sex toy, huh?" I ask.
His eyes get even narrower, and he stares off into the middle distance. "I could be."
When B. John called that first time, maybe an hour after I left a message on his machine, it was obvious that he really, really wanted to talk about his job. Without prompting, he described his bodywork as a combination of Swedish and shiatsu massage, with a little something extra thrown in as dessert, usually at the end of the massage, to "further the client's relaxation." Sex play doesn't occur in every one of his sessions ("the planets have to all line up for that to happen"), and B. John is quick to add, after I ask him why he thinks he's not a prostitute, that sex is not necessarily the means, or the ends, of his service. "A prostitute is being called specifically for sex," he explains. "No woman ever hires me in a 'let's just get this over and done with' kind of way."
Although B. John will not engage in genital/genital contact with a client, "if there's anything that makes [the session] sexually charged, I'll address that," he says. Good thing he addresses it with his tongue or fingers, instead of with a prescription pad and a diploma.
"It's always so exciting when the phone rings," he blurts as we say our goodbyes. He sounded so ebullient that I felt all tilted and fizzy inside long after I hung up. I didn't expect genuine eagerness out of him.
In a pleasingly defiant contradiction, he described himself as "nondescript"?adding that he was maybe 5-foot-8, with brown hair, and by those noncharacteristics, I would be able to pick him out of the soggy evening crowd at Starbucks, where even I appear to be 5-foot-8 with brown hair. Nondescript in a non-place. This is intriguing.
It's amazing what 5-foot-8 with brown hair will become during the span of a crosstown walk. B. John has a voice that is almost baby-ish, the mark of a true tough guy, allowing me to cobble together a shameful vision made of some kind of unholy testosterone trinity: a priapic chatterbox made of equal parts Cruise, Tyson and Boyzone. Yes. That's the thing I'm looking for tonight at ye olde coffee chain.
I'm not alone. There's one piece of candy talking on a cell, slumped on the stained white chair in the corner with his legs splayed out; another is mired in one of the long lines, also on a cell, or fumbling for one in his stiff black anorak... Wait, that can't be him, B. John said he only uses a pager, and besides, there are small clots of other dark-haired men everywhere, and their eyes are also sweeping the place. I don't know how anyone gets a coffee or a conversation here.
I go back outside to page B. John again and to take another look at the crowd. I see him right away, standing on the periphery. Half-hidden behind the steamed-up glass, there's a disheveled, compact, middle-aged man with frizzy salt-and-pepper hair looking around with a creased expression of concern and maybe dismay. Quizzically, he reaches for his pager, and when he looks up, it's right at me. He ambles outside. "I thought you mentioned you'd be wearing an old trench coat, and that's how I'd recognize you," he says happily.
"What I meant to say is I would be wearing one in my mind," I explained, also grinning with unabashed relief. He's adorable, a weary little doll. He is absolutely not 5-foot-8. It seems like I am gazing down at him.
He has a heavy, sympathetic Old World face, and enchanted brown eyes. Of course, of course, this is B. John. His handshake is dry, pillowy and firm.
I think, I could take him. I'm not sure what that means.
My pen slides out of my hand twice. I step on my notebook once. B. John is half-sitting, half-crouched on a low coffee table, and now I'm sunk into that dirty white leatherette chair. B. John is gazing at me from above, and I am more or less sitting between his knees. All I can do is gape. Green tea ("it's magical") for him and hot chocolate for me (it's sugar). And B. John is talking. I just let my mouth hang open. Eventually I give up and put my pen and notebook away, without breaking eye contact with him once. Actually, I'm a little bit mired in B. John's eyes, which are shiny, sober and positively liquid with faith. I hear him compliment my outfit, and his eyes sweep adoringly over my bare shoulders. This feels good, but I'm not listening.
Then he says, "This job germinated out of my skills in energy transference, and I knew I could apply my hands in a healing way. I want to do this for the most subjugated, stigmatized people in the world. I thought, 'Maybe if I gave something back to them?'"
He means astigmatized, doesn't he? Because there's a big difference. Stigmatism: I'm a woman, therefore I am stigmatized, marked, agreeably humping around a toy chest filled with centuries of hate, yours and mine, and it is my problem.
Astigmatism: you need to get your prescription lenses checked, pal, I don't know what you see but I ain't carrying shit, neither yours nor mine, and it is your problem. Astigmatism is a scarlet A that any woman can wear, because no matter how free and devoid of guilt she thinks she is, you can bet that there's a hostile philanthropist out there who believes she's really enslaved, and will take it upon him- (or her-) self to act as the liberator.
B. John isn't hostile toward anyone, but I have to wonder whom he's trying to liberate. He tells me he came into this business two years ago through "guilt" and because "he carries the baggage of every man's sins." He still thinks men, as a history, and as a culture, need to be forgiven, and the forgiving must come from the oppressed race?Womankind. All of Womankind. As many appointments with Womankind as he can fit in a week.
His Womankind are, almost exclusively, single and white. "Well, they appear to be single white females," he adds. He has served several lesbians who were looking for a safe way to feed their het jones. "Oh yes, the lesbians are wonderful," he says affectionately, crinkling his eyes.
Most appointments are "one-offs" with lone she-wolves who get their end off once and don't call back. He refers to his fee ($70 per hour and $40 for 30 minutes) as a "donation."
Obviously, B. John isn't in it for the money. He's in it for the charity, his and hers. Although he encourages tipping, his clients just aren't big spenders. Men tip guiltily, rhythmically and in big denominations. Ladies do not tip like men. B. John accepts this fact of nature.
I can tell that his forum?visiting strange women's apartments and spending a gentle good time with them for a low rate?is the only place he's going to find absolution. This is kind of bittersweet, since he claims to be in a "rock solid" relationship with a woman. "Look at what I'm doing," he says. "Don't tell me she shouldn't be deified."
So this is just another musty archetype fantasy of man being absolved of his guilt by the tragic female martyr. Only he needs the sanction of many, many martyrs. And he's handing out mercy fucks to them. Sounds pretty plain old top and bottom chauvinistic to me. Yawn.
During our brief acquaintance, I will remind B. John that he's got a serious generation chasm going on between his age group (he says he's 39 but I believe he's older than that) and the troops of 18-to-35-year-old Ms. Modernaires who are honing their dude-like love skills?fuck for fun, run and don't pay. That is not the way of B. John Michaels, but he's not worried. These 21st-century girls might want it and get it for free now, but as B. John's small but devoted pool of "steadies" (and women from this group pay him with everything from waitressing tips to crisp $20 bills to Social Security checks) will attest, there's nothing quite as sweet as paying a nice, middle-aged Italian man from Brooklyn to listen to your shit, while not having to worry that he's going to lick and tell. "Every woman should be able to buy a penis," he says thoughtfully. "A penis that isn't going to brag.
"I've learned a lot about all kinds of top and bottom relationships, and they're always based in trust?all of them, from the nightly suburban bedroom showdowns to the most Baroque s&m charades. It's all the same thing."
I say nothing for the remainder of my hot chocolate.
While he talked on, I remembered that I blew off this puff course in college called "A Survey of Androgyny Throughout the Ages." The course was usually taken by seniors who majored in Gender (I'm not kidding). I was not one of them.
I never went to the class, I never cracked the textbook, and maybe I didn't learn something important. I might have a void where some Gender was supposed to be. Sweat-slick with desperation the morning of the 8 a.m. debate against my intellectually sound, yet completely irrational pro-sex-for-capital femme professor, I developed a monologue designed to refute her belief that prostitutes were feminists and, paradoxically enough, good businesswomen. She seemed to be able to ignore the fact that her entire pet caste of savvy sexual pioneers was one lateral step away from wearing a hairnet and touching the screen of a cash register for a living. This debate, incidentally, was for the "oral final."
I started with a joke: What's the difference between a whore and McDonald's? It's good for business when McDonald's advertises how many they've served.
There was maybe one bray of appalled laughter in the auditorium, and then silence. After some feedback, I put my lips against the mic and said the following, more or less in one breath: "I, um, suppose sex for capital is an eloquent way of saying 'make me safe,' or, uh, 'I'm making you safe,' on both a physically intimate and financial level. The gender inversion, having the um, so-called weaker sex in the dominant earning role, I guess that's naive and superficial, and wouldn't you say that the man, the customer, is still controlling from the bottom? And then when you throw the exchange of money into the equation, the um, emotional power of the act is nullified anyway, I guess. Then it just becomes a service job, a 'what'll it be, sir?' kind of thing, with both parties doing their best to not have to um, think or uh, be present during the course of their transaction. It's still fucking fast food for everyone, no matter who's working the register." Another toot of feedback, louder this time. I did not pass the course.
B. John squirms coquettishly on the table. "So, do you want to know how a session works?"
"No," I say sourly. But it is agreed that he will visit my home at noon the following day. It doesn't look like I'll be getting a blowjob tonight.
I have two words for you: Plezh-huh. Rhymes with trezh-huh. That's how he says pleasure?the right way, sort of lazily and languid, the hard edges buzzed down by overuse and Brooklyn. And it is the pleasure of women that B. John is in service to, 24 hours a day. He says "it's not about me" and "it's all about the woman" several times.
It is no surprise that most of his appointments are in the early morning, which is probably the horniest time of day for women. His answering machine is always on, day and night, in case a lady wants to call up "just to talk." Interestingly enough, there is a woman's voice on his answering machine's outgoing message, which I found to be remarkable the first time I called him. It is not a breathy vixen voice or the stiff patter of a pervert who's trying to be half-legit; it is the capable, wonky tone of a close-lipped, white-bloused older secretary from the outer boroughs, who thanks us for calling "B. John Michaels' Passionate Whispers." The voice is an effective, unspoken assent from a matron who sounds like she prefers to do the books, rather than the blow.
Some of B. John's rules: He is to be hired by women only. Husbands or boyfriends are not allowed to make or confirm appointments, but they can be present during the session, as long as B. John is told in advance. Many times he has gotten a call from a man who says his woman is finally ready for a session and to be there tonight. He arrived at one such appointment and found the woman nervous and angry, sitting on the couch hugging herself, while the husband lurked around with a shitty grin. When they finally got down to business she was numb to B. John's touch. Never again.
He works 96th St. to the Battery, river to river, and occasionally he'll do Brooklyn Heights and Fort Lee. He is to be paid up front, and "as soon as the money changes hands I get a little more relaxed. I might not even take my jacket off during our first [in-person] conversation." While visiting a client's home, he rarely speaks out of turn, and he always asks for a drink, because this makes the appointment seem more like a social call. There is also a practical reason: "Look, I'm touching your glass, ergo, fingerprints." Just in case visions of a phantom psycho dance in her head.
He used to be a department store manager and an EMT. When he got tired of working to make other people rich, he quit. He has padded through various mystery cults?the Jehovahs, vague Hindu weirdnesses, Catholicism?"but I've moved away from that; now I'm closer to Wiccan." He is a lesbian in a past life, and a "jack of all trades, and a master of all of them." His hobbies include "jogging, engaging in reasonable discussions and watching reality-based tv."
"Like the Discovery Channel," he explains.
"Oh, those surgery and tornado programs."
"Exactly. Since I used to be an EMT, I still get an adrenaline rush watching those shows."
I didn't used to be an EMT, and I get a hard-on watching that crap. What's my problem?
The problem is, I need a little excitement in my life. I need to have a stranger come over for refreshments, and, to use personal ad lingo, maybe more. I crave a little intrigue, as B. John would say.
I spend the morning attack-proofing my apartment. At least that's what I think I'm doing. I put on water for tea, slice some lemon bread and polish two sets of matching silverware, dishes and cups. I hide the big knives.
"Show me whatever you want to show me," he said, when I asked how I should prepare for his visit.
Should I shower? What if I'm a little unclean? I believe I am. I light incense. Repulsed, I extinguish it. Earlier I had asked him if he ever had to deal with a stinky client. He said, "if someone needs a hygiene lesson, fine, I'll give her one." This mysterious "hygiene lesson" sounds appealing. Does it cost money?
As the hour approaches, I rearrange the pile of CDs on the table, hiding the cock rock and unhappy 80s compilations. Out comes the Simon and Garfunkel. I sniff my armpits.
It's 11:59. I look at my wristwatch for the final minute, knowing what's going to happen next. When the big hand crawls to high noon, the buzzer sounds. Exactly on time.
I hang over the stairwell railing to watch him come up. His footfalls are the quietest I've ever heard. He is led into the apartment, seated, and a steaming mug of ginger tea is set before him. Conversation veers vaguely from the great sunlight in my front room to the individual passions of Freddie Mercury, John Bonham and Keith Moon. He mentions how these musicians all "powered the acts they were in." Or perhaps I said that. In any case, I agree, without hesitation. I really want him to touch me. Feeling pert, confident, somewhat bitchy and wholly entitled, I hold out my hand to him, palm up, and say, "I want to test your touch."
He complies, and lightly brushes his fingertips against my hand. "Notice how I didn't leap toward you to touch you," he says proudly. "Sometimes a light touch is all it takes."
And then Brie bursts in, back home early from jury duty. I take my hand away. "They dismissed the case," she pants, and drops into a chair. She studies B. John with an equal measure of derision and affability. "You must be the sex object."
If B. John was happy before, now he's positively spasmodic with joy. He twists delightedly on the couch and his eyes dart back and forth between the gazes of the two women before him. He cries, "I get two for one!"
While Brie engages him in a ruthless conversation about erotic politics and marketing analysis ("Do you research your competition? How do you know if you're progressing in your field?"), I silently study B. John's outfit. Tight green pullover hooded sweatshirt, faded black jeans, blue socks and brown shoes. Strictly a don't-take-me-anywhere kind of look. He's not going to get a second glance from anyone, and he isn't asking for one. It's endearing. If I were to hire him for a party or a high school reunion, everyone would think he was my plumber.
Eventually conversation wanes and it becomes time for "the session." We all stand up. He asks Brie, in a mumbling, shy voice, if she would like to join, but she declines and goes in her bedroom to call her boyfriend. B. John goes into the bathroom to prepare. I fish around in the ashtray, relight a crushed-out butt, and take a few pulls off it to freshen my breath.
When he reemerges, he is hirsutely alpha male, clad only in his jeans. We go into my bedroom but I do not shut my door. "Does anyone ever call you just B.?"
"Sometimes," he says. "I usually work in these," he adds, holding up a pair of slippery blue Speedo jogging shorts. "Or naked, if you prefer."
"Uh, wear the Speedos." I turn away as he puts them on. Then he gives me the CD he wants to play during the session. I look at it and swallow hard. Enya's Greatest Hits. Freeze. Wow, he wasn't kidding when he said he was a lesbo in a past life.
Enya! Enya. I love her too, in all her Bridget Go Country Crock glory, but as far as massage goes, or any solipsistic endeavor for that matter?be it spa treatments or cunnilingus?no Enya as soundtrack. That's final. Even Vogue jokes about Enya and bodywork. But here is B. John, stout and efficient in his trunks. He looks like he should be flapping a palm frond in a marble room.
Oh well. I pull off my sweatshirt, so I'm wearing only a woeful flesh-colored bra that I stole from a yoga lost-and-found, sweatpants and socks, and I lie face down on my comforter. My room is ice cold. He smells nice, like a whore?talc and baby oil. Pleasantly, featurelessly clean.
The truth? He has an amazing "energetic light touch," to use bodywork parlance?Reiki-like in its tenderness, like a crackle of nice static, unschooled, soothing. When B. John would switch to the other side of the bed, he would trace the seat of my sweats with his fingertips. His hands never left my body, even if that meant he had to leap, barefooted, over the empty shoeboxes and piles of dirty small change scattered randomly around my bed. He lightly traced my buttocks. When was the last time somebody traced your buttocks? When was the last time somebody touched these sweatpants? A little jolt passed through my trunk. A lyric from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas: "lots of goodwill and maybe one small thrill." And isn't that enough?
And the Enya? Well, she's putting me down like I'm an old dog. I peek for a second. He doesn't have a woody, and judging by the drape of his Speedos, he's not hung like a Leviathan. After an interval he whispers for me to roll onto my back. I do, but I keep my fingers woven up over my heart, half-cold, half-shy.
I don't realize that I've fallen asleep until I hear his Enya CD skipping. My CD player immediately cues up my next disc?and "Whole Lotta Love" grinds on. Hmmm. There is an awkward pause when we decide what to do. He smiles and puts my socks back on. I get up and thank him. That felt very college-y. My room is a mess.
"Could you feel it?" he asks.
He leaves after some pleasantries, a kiss on both of my cheeks. Our time didn't taste like a dishonest gourmet dinner, but it didn't taste like fast food, either. That was something. Later I take a deep daytime nap, and then I cook a great evening meal for Brie and Tanya. I feel very good.