The Lake (beginning sneak peak of a story I’m writing)

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I never would’ve thought twice about them if it weren’t for the lake. The lake, a wide glass mirror beaming a triumvirate of inverted mountains like flower petals right before they fall. The lake, days away from most other human life, so still it shakes you with the sound of your own mind. You trudge uphill for unbroken hours through woods denser with pines than the New York subway with people, and you start seeing faces in the bark. The red dots marking the trail have faded, but turning back you’re just as lost, so you make up songs like your 6-year-old self and hope you’re on the right path.

And finally you, your throbbing legs and your overstuffed backpack, wind up the final loop and arrive. The chill of altitude, the sting of the close sun, the wrinkled burnt fingers of peaks cradling you from all sides. The large log house by the pebbled shore: the refugio, where you will stay. Your home away from home. You are ready to see people!

You throw open the front wood door and holler an “Hola!” ready for some smiling hippie to greet you with a hot mate tea. You’ve walked here from El Bolson after all, Patagonia’s bohemian bowl: a town with a dreadlocked tango teacher, more guitars than computers, and clowns swinging on makeshift trapezes in the main plaza. There French and Israeli farmers feed you organic blackberries, young Buenos Aires transplants preach the existence of forest gnomes, and little ethereal children pedal bathtub-shaped yellow boats in a pond.

“This is one of the last refuges left in the world,” a former Grateful Dead groupie tells you as you take a break from singing the Beatles at his campsite on the edge of town. He’s a 1970’s flower child from Spain who lives in a tent with no phone or watch.

A natural refuge, a haven from technology and the “system” as we know it. The wild mountains free us, make frogs become sage spirits and the full moon a magnet lifting our feet to levitate.

So when I open the front wood door at the lake, I imagine a sacred respite with a few other hikers strumming stringed instruments. “Hola! Hola?” But no one responds. I walk in.

Staticky voices argue in Spanish on a cube in the corner: a soap opera with weak reception through DirectTV. Shutters are drawn. A woman in sweats dips a torta frita (fried bread) in jelly and chews. She sits alone in the house, eyes stuck on the screen. She looks my age. I sink.

“Hola, necesito una cama?” I ask for a bed. Finally she looks at me.

“Si. Claro.” Of course. What a stupid request, she knows I need a bed, but I am interrupting her show and her home, she seems to say. She shows me upstairs, where the soap opera seeps through the floorboards to the ear-to-ear mattresses, all empty but for one couple of sleeping bag caterpillars who speak only German.

“Where are you from?” I ask my hostess in Spanish, somehow hoping she’ll crack and warm as the temperature drops in the air.

“Buenos Aires.” The big city. Dark mess of hair in a forgotten ponytail, face of a middle schooler in math.

“And how long have you lived here?”

“Five years. You can pay later.” She retreats to her chair and looks at the TV, not flinching as a bear-like man with wood in his arms walks in the doorway.

“Hola,” I say with a small smile. He looks me up and down then gives an awkward nod and looks away. “This place was recommended to me by a woman from the restaurant La Confluencia in El Bolson, She said her son owned it. Is that you?”

“Yes.” He stuffs the wood in the furnace, and says no more.

Heaviness pulls on me even as I step outside, and I walk straight to the lake. I try to meditate them away, but first a deep deathlike sadness fills my exhalations. I stand on my head to wash it away. The lake is my best friend.

Well, I came here to be alone. And that is what I will be.

Georgina, Poster Child for Argentine Sex Workers

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Georgina Orellano is a robust, assertive, doll-faced 27-year-old who has been abused by one man in her life: the father of her only child. Her strongest support to leave him and take back her autonomy came from her clients, who said she should never allow a man to mistreat her.

Those clients were all men. They were all paying her for sex.

Since age 19 in Buenos Aires Georgina has been a “sex worker,” which she uses instead of “prostitute” since she says the latter word is used derogatorily by people trying to banish the field. She’s the first sex worker with whom I’ve ever spoken at length–and she’s determined to convince me of the legitimacy of the job.

“I like the work. I like to stand on a corner and wait for someone to stop and roll down his window. I like the feeling of power over men,” she says. She’s got on a black tank with a sparkly bug-eyed owl and a skintight short pink skirt. “I like the ability to put a price on myself, to talk and to learn [my clients’] stories.”

Georgina tells me the work has allowed her to study in a university, to raise a child–and even to have power over men. She says the only problem has been the cops, who occasionally appear to demand part of her wages or those of her coworkers.

So Georgina joined the Argentinian group AMMAR, an organization of about 5,000 sex workers who have proposed to legalize and to regulate prostitution in the country. Right now no law officially prohibits or permits the job, but AMMAR’s legislation would allow people to work independently with protection from the law. The closest law that exists is in the Netherlands, but the Argentine law would not extend solely to a certain “Red Light District” as it does in the Netherlands.

Georgina also likes to be the poster child for sex workers–so she started working at AMMAR. She says the field isn’t for everyone, but neither is cleaning houses, or working in a factory, or being a nurse.

“I wouldn’t want to be a housekeeper, and that’s what my mother is. Other people work with their hands, but we work with our sexuality,” she says. “We work with our vaginas, and that’s what’s seen as bad. It’s just our work, but we live in a machista, conservative society and the theme of sexuality is totally taboo.”

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When I ask if she’s struggled with–or even changed–her relationship with her body from “working with her vagina,” as she says, she accuses me of carrying judgments like the rest of society.

“I separate. When I work I work, and then I’m done working.”

I try to imagine making that separation, but can’t. “She must be lying to herself,” friends tell me. Of course we’re all, at least slightly, different.

Georgina started the work the summer after she graduated from high school, and she’d only had sex with one person, a boyfriend. She’d gotten a job watching a well-off woman’s children while the mother went to work, and eventually the mother told Georgina she made her living as a sex worker. One wealthy 40-year-old engineer was on the hunt for a new, younger female–and the woman thought Georgina might just be perfect. Georgina decided to meet the man for coffee.

“I was so nervous, I thought the whole world knew what I was about to do,” Georgina recalls of that day. “But he was very sweet, and he treated me well. He paid me more in two hours than I made in two weeks watching the woman’s children. We talked for an hour and he told me all about his life, and the sex only lasted about 15 minutes.”

That engineer is still one of her regular clients (he sees her three times a week).

When Georgina decided to pick up other customers she went to a corner in Buenos Aires’ neighborhood Villa del Parque, and she started befriending the other sex workers.

“There’s a code. If a woman has already had your client she’ll tell you what he likes, what to do so he’ll finish more quickly,” she explains. “If I’m not attracted to a man, I’ll only go with him to his car because that’s 15 minutes. I won’t go to a hotel, take all that time. I’ll only be with him for a few minutes.”

A surprising number of Georgina’s clients have wanted more than the sex, she says–they want to go for coffees and talk to her all about their lives because they’re lonely. And she has three regular customers who have appointments with her twice or three times each week.

“Some men say it’s more economical for them to have a sex worker a few times a week than to have a girlfriend to have to pay for all week. We’re not going to bother them. We’re not going to go asking them where they are. It’s easier for them,” she says. “Our hour of work ends and then it’s over.”

Anti-prostitution advocates say the field is inevitably exploitative, but Georgina says that is a serious misconception.

“We’re not suffering for our work. We suffer if we’re single mothers,” says Georgina, who has been alone raising her 6-year-old son since he was one year old. “I’ll keep working this job until my body no longer works.”