“I love you,” he told her.
“I love you,” he said again.
She kept on smiling, but her look changed as she pretended to look offscreen.
“I love you,” he typed again.
She stared at the message, and got close to the camera as if she were to say something confidentially. “I love you too darling, but your tips don’t show me enough love.”
Mel continued reading other participants’ messages. She contorted her facial muscles, feigning surprise, opening her eyes wide as if encountering the unexpected. But there was nothing unexpected. The comments were always the same, the same expressions of arousal, the same demands to show more, to touch herself, to play, to lick herself, or to assume this or that erotic position. A little bell rang to announce a tip, and she would smile and thank her generous admirers. She would threaten to take off her corset. She would remove a stocking, slowly caressing her dainty legs. She would tell silly stories, play the coquette while batting her eyes, then would jump, sensually move her hips, finally thanking everyone and ending the show with a promise to return the next day.
He sent plenty of private messages to her but did not receive a response. There was nothing urgent he needed to tell her, but at the same time he felt compelled to communicate with her regardless of the results. That’s why he kept insisting, stupidly, compulsively, despite knowing there would be no response. He kept calm because he knew that if he continued, he’d be blocked and there’d be no going back. If he was flagged for harassment, he would be permanently blocked, and that would mean being sent to a limbo he couldn’t imagine living in. He was used to seeing her cam every day from start to finish. Before she had become famous she would answer his private messages. They even spoke over the phone on certain occasions and had a couple of private video calls that were brief but satisfying. She hadn’t agreed to meet in person, but he knew that was too much to ask. It would imply unusual connection. He himself was not ready for such a commitment.
However, they had spoken intimately about his finances. He had told her that he worked with the stock market. She appeared to take him at his word, and even asked for advice on how to manage her money. What to invest in, saving strategies, and what to do in case her income didn’t grow as she expected it to after expenses for lights, paraphernalia, and decorations for her set. He invented convincing responses that hinted at professional expertise. He also lied to her about the possibility of inviting her to invest in an index fund known for its high returns. She told him she would think about it. Any self-respecting cam girl knows it’s not a good idea to do business with fans. He knew this, too. These were things that could be said without consequences or commitment. Plans for a charmed life sustained by tips, stripteases, and solitary orgasms. Plans made without any intention of ever carrying them out. He needed to hear her voice. He felt his blood pressure rising and felt a familiar sharp pain in his forehead. He called once more, repeating to himself, this is the last time, this is the last time.
Ring, ring. Suddenly: “What do you want?” Mel said curtly, in a harsh voice, but one he recognized by its sensuality.
He was too surprised to speak. He hadn’t considered the possibility she would pick up.
“Why do you keep pushing? What more do you want from me? I give you everything that I can, but nothing satisfies you. What’s left? What’s missing? Tell me.” He kept his silence. His forehead and hands were soaked. He sat on the toilet.
“I need you,” he said finally.
“Why do you need me? What do you need me for?”
“I want to be with you,” he said, repeating one of those plans without consequences.
“I love you.”
“You’ve already said that.”
He had nothing else to offer.
“Do you have a family? A wife, children? A dog?”
“Do you want to be with me? Come and pick me up.”
“I’m in Riverhead. Do you have a car? Are you able to come?”
“Yes, yes, I can.” The phone trembled in hands.
“I’ll text you the address. Come right away.” She hung up.
He came out of the bathroom, where he had locked himself for the previous hour or so. His wife looked at him and asked: “Is everything okay? It looks like you saw a ghost, or a hemorrhoid the size of your hand.”
“Everything is fine, but I need to head out.”
“You promised to help the children with their homework.”
“Tony, from the office, he’s . . . dead.”
“How? What happened to him?”
“I don’t know, I have to see. They called me to go and see him.”
“I’ll go with you. I must call Miranda. This is terrible,” she said as she covered her eyes.
“No, don’t call anyone, not even his wife. Don’t say anything to anybody.”
“But what happened?”
“I’m not sure, I have to go.”
He hurried to the bedroom and threw on his old black suit. The children shouted—they were waiting—but he didn’t respond.
He put on the only black tie he had and walked towards the door. Rolf, their terrier, looked at him with disappointment and fell back asleep.
“Are you going to tell me what’s really going on?” his wife asked, clearly agitated, her eyes swollen with tears.
“Don’t worry, I’ll explain everything when I return. Do not call anyone. I will call you.”
“What’s with all this mystery?”
He left in a sweat, without saying another word. He looked up the address that Mel gave him on Google Maps. It would take an hour and fifteen minutes from his house in Brooklyn. It was enough time for him to organize his thoughts and prepare in case it was a trap. Maybe he’d arrive and no one would be there. Perhaps she’s a minor and a team of cops would be waiting for him. He didn’t think that Mel was underage, but how could he really know? It could be a trap to kidnap him and take him for everything he had. After all, he had claimed to be an executive for an important finance firm.
He could confess that he worked in the human resources department of a pharmacy chain. He had nothing to be ashamed of. It was an important and respectable job. He’d also have to tell her about his wife and kids. He thought to call Tony. Just a quick phone call. To bring him up to speed about his death. He didn’t do it. Traffic was heavier than expected. This wasn’t a case of infidelity, at least not yet. Watching a lovely girl swaying her hips with little in the way of clothes over a monitor, asking her to do things and rewarding her with Bitcoin tips, was not the same as cheating on his wife. Having private phone and video calls with her couldn’t count as a betrayal, either.
The female voice of the Google Maps guide announced his arrival. A decrepit, half-empty restaurant. He took a moment to summon the courage to open his car door and step out. He didn’t know what he was going to say, or what he was doing there. As he stepped into the restaurant, the smell of fried food and lukewarm coffee gave him chills. His wife was disgusted by dirty diners like this one. He picked the first table and sat there watching the door.
He ordered a coffee, which predictably needed more sugar than it could hold to counter its bitter taste. He looked at his watch every two or three minutes. He tried reading some article on his phone but was too distracted. He checked Mel’s Instagram and Twitter accounts again, waiting anxiously for her to post something, anything. He was confused and he felt lightheaded. His wife dialed him once. He didn’t answer and put his ringer on silent. He laid his head on the table and dozed off for a moment. He woke up frightened. He went to the bathroom to wash his face. When he returned, he thought, Mel would be there. It didn’t happen that way. Time kept passing and he tried calling Mel one more time. She didn’t answer.
Two hours and a gallon of coffee later, he decided to give up. He dialed her once more and heard a phone ringing. He lifted his gaze to see a disheveled girl standing at the door, no makeup on, wearing a wrinkled summer dress and a leather jacket, phone ringing in her hand. They stared at each other. She declined his call without a word and sat down in front of him. He was surprised by her appearance but particularly by her unkempt black hair. Where had her silver wig gone? They sat silently for a moment as if to absorb the impact of meeting face-to-face, in the flesh. The waitress came back around. Mel ordered tea and a slice of cherry pie.
“It’s the best thing they have here,” she said, adjusting her backpack and stuffing her bags into the booth.
“I should’ve ordered that.”
“It’s nothing special.”
“You came,” he said.
“You too.” More silence. She stared at her phone with regret.
“What’s all that?” he asked, pointing at her things.
Another long silence. He also pretended to be on his phone as if he were searching for something, making it seem like he was sending a text. She placed her phone on the table. She took a sip of her tea and took a bite of her pie.
“You told me that you love me. Now you can prove it.”
“I came here as soon as possible.”
“Take me to your house in Manhattan.”
“What do you mean, when? Right now.”
“You and I have known each other for awhile now. How long has it been, a month? I’m not here to bullshit or lie to you.”
“Yeah, it’s been about four weeks since I started watching your cam show.”
“You see? That’s why I trust you and want to propose that we become business partners. Do you think I’d put myself in danger by meeting just anyone? I’m not crazy.”
“Right. My cam show is growing, but with more capital and careful planning, I can make it to the top ten rankings in a matter of weeks.”
“And what will I do?”
“First, I want you to be my financial partner. If all goes well between us, maybe we take the next step and make shows as a couple. I have everything I need to make it. I just need a bit of help.”
“Me, in one of your shows?” was all he managed to say.
“Why not?” she asked with a mouthful of pie. “But for now, I need a place to stay. I got kicked out of my apartment over a stupid misunderstanding.”
“Apparently, my lease explicitly prohibits me from recording live sex shows.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Neither can I. So, you’ll take me to your place in Manhattan? I can put up a temporary studio in any room. I need to get ready for my next show.” She looked at the time on her phone as she spoke.
“The thing is . . . I don’t live in Manhattan.”
“You told me you did.”
“Not everything I told you was true. I live in Brooklyn.”
“Brooklyn. That’s fine. I can adapt.” She finished her pie and took one last sip of her tea. She got the check and asked, “Are we going?”
“But I just got here,” he said, since no excuses came to mind.
“And what do you want to do here?”
“I don’t know, be with you.”
“Don’t be gross. What are you referring to?”
“Nothing bad, I just want to be with you.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be together, more than you can imagine. Where’s your car?”
He pointed to the street.
“Get the bill and let’s go,” she said, standing up.
He left a twenty-dollar bill on the table, in the amateur conviction that he wasn’t leaving a trail. They walked to the car. He had broken into a sweat and his hands were fidgeting. He opened the doors. She threw her bags and backpack in the rear seat. She saw that it was filled with strollers, bats, balls, and other plastic multicolored things.
“Why are there toys in your car?”
She sat in the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment. “There’s a lip liner and some makeup here. Do you use this?”
“I think I need to tell you something.”
“Don’t worry about it. I can guess what you’re about to say. You can tell me on the way to Brooklyn.”
He started the car. He was about to say something, but Mel was looking at her phone and put her hand up to stop him. He pulled onto the road and thought back to the other plans he’d made without commitment.
“If at any moment someone asks about Tony, you can tell them that you’re sorry about his passing.”
“Planes y Compromisos” © Naief Yehya. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Samantha Ortega. All rights reserved.