Comfort Woman

Civil cases aren’t like criminal ones; it’s nearly useless to subpoena a reluctant witness who doesn’t want to testify, or who doesn’t want to be found. I had never seen her like this. But the resulting chaos was the kind of thing news spectators love; it makes them feel safe by comparison. I mean, look at me – I’m a large girl, older; I’m not a babe. I promised him I wouldn’t do it anymore, but nobody else will hire me.’ She ate as quickly as was polite. I was poor. The next time we spoke, Poppy’s voice was bright at the other end of the phone, dispelling the image I’d built up of her. ‘Well, yeah.’ Poppy’s face and voice disconnected from each other. Worse was the image of her heading back out to work the next week, or the next night, or ever. It looks like my face. To supplement the prostitutes Poppy provided, the university had also hired other (more heavily disguised) local sex services for their football recruits. Janet Malcolm echoed in my head: No subject is naïve. We were court-consecrated. I could hear him thinking, And why? I imagined her dressing in the dark to meet dangerous men after her son fell asleep in his bed.  
Over the next two years, I talked with Poppy every few months to consult with her on the case. I know I was an engine in a vast legal machine that hurt her. Everyone’s profiting from her testimony. ‘But maybe I could pitch an article on you,’ I said. What’s happening to me?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I feel like I just screwed up my life. She eventually found an employer, who enslaved her financially and sexually. The first night I went out on a job, I cried and cried. A whole new cast of villains and victims awaited me. Rapport was the thing. She needed that shining black hair, and every other asset she had.  
The party was at the lobby of the firm, which had been remodeled in natural wood and brushed metal, with expensive paintings curated throughout. The better choice was to return to prostitution. I had never made $250 dollars in fifteen minutes. Then I wondered what was wrong with me. Instead, she stared out the window at the aggressively bright day, and at the women exiting the yoga store buoyed by shopping bags. It’s real nice that you care. Alcohol made the football players arrogant enough to tell the truth; it made the victims sad enough to risk talking to me. Poppy gave me a double-take. I wanted to, even. She was on her stomach. I met female strangers at the same bars to ask them about getting raped by those players – where, when, how long, by whom, what happened after, what happened before? What Nietzsche doesn’t mention is how easy it is for the abyss to disguise itself. Look at your face. Poppy played babysitter, snapping gum and twirling pigtails while the Adult Baby toddled around in a giant diaper. You’re so concerned.’ Her own face slowly took on the same canny expression the lawyer had when he hired me. With my name, my appearance – I stick out.’
‘How about cutting your hair? She had never tried to play me quite like that before. ‘One kid said he was a virgin. the work.’ She was strangely squeamish about her job title. The motel owner finally took pity on her tear-stained face, and offered her a job on the night shift so she could quit the life. I was also tasked with gathering evidence for the original crime, and for the rape culture that permeated the university’s football program. Poppy’s grandmother had a tattoo over her heart, which was how the brothel marked the women. ‘I want a white picket fence,’ she whispered. None of them knew me or my involvement with the case. It’s a matter of when.’
‘Did you get raped?’ I asked. Shit! It’s also a talent, one I quickly realized I shared. Once a middle-aged couple threw boiling hot coffee at me. He wanted black girls or blondes for the recruits – one or the other, always.’
‘High school boys wanted to sleep with older women? I do what she does, I suddenly realized. ‘Come work for me!’ Poppy said. It sounds like a nice person asking for your secrets. ‘Don’t run away,’ I said. The perpetrators were still free to roam and rape, and the football coach who caused it all received a three million dollar settlement with his dismissal. I knew I could keep them safer. You’d be the belle of the ball.’
For a dizzy second, I considered it. That’s not really ethical.’ Then she placed me on hold until I eventually hung up, and she didn’t take my calls again. I felt responsible for it all – the needs of the case, the costs to Poppy, and the fates of the plaintiffs, whom I had never met. The code word was “mercy”. After a brief phone conversation, I met Poppy in person at a small cafe in 2004, and we talked for three hours. But maybe that was because I had been the one playing her all along. ‘But the recruiter gave us so many referrals that I’d see him on the side. He married her. Despite the journalist’s transparent greed and deceit, Malcolm insists, ‘No subject is naïve… She hears voices and sees God,’ Poppy said. I pretended to be a triathlete; I pretended to be a wealthy donor; I pretended to have breast cancer. She conceived and gave birth while there; the soldiers removed the infant and left it to die outside from exposure. ‘The recruiter found us through the phone book – we had lines routed all over the place, and classified ads in the PennySaver. But I didn’t know. As I exerted pressure on these brave women, I quailed inside, even though I knew winning this case could save countless other women from future devastation. Hurriedly, I named social services: Emergency Family Assistance, Safehouse, Mental Health Center, Family and Children Services. One teen athlete explained patiently, ‘This is glory we’re talking about. In her blue dress, Poppy had transformed into her working self, an all-inclusive sexual force with its own gravitational field. She had a stable of prostitutes by the time the football team started contacting her. Maybe Poppy was too depressed to help herself. Ha. The only other difference between us was where the money went – hers to her son, and for me, to these men in suits who were slapping each other on the back for the win. I showed up and lied to people, which is illegal for attorneys but not for private investigators – not for me. Then they found out who I was, fired me and didn’t pay me for my time. So if a girl checked in and said, “Mercy, it was hard to find this place,” we knew she was in trouble.’
‘What kind of trouble?’
Poppy sat back, resting her hands on the table. Both parents were abusive. Poppy pouring cereal for her son the next morning. I could only see the couch, Poppy trapped beneath it, the men.  
Our first half dozen cases together were smaller in scope: personal injury, medical malpractice, auto. They ripped off her clothing. Sex sells, baby! If she left the state, the case could collapse. Her father was a ‘prick cop’ and her mother was a ‘full-gospel Christian. She had highlighted her half-moon eyes with sparkly purple eyeshadow. She was a madam for an escort service that provided prostitutes for football recruits, directly solicited by the university. Let’s write a book together! All this has got to be worth something. They each took turns raping her while the other five sat on the couch, holding her down. ‘As one of your… ‘I refuse to change that diaper, though,’ she said. You need to let this woman make her own decisions.’
‘I’m trying to help her.’
‘Sure. I stopped returning her phone calls. Your girls?’
‘Those women were going to work for someone, whether it was me or someone else. Poppy was speaking across the table from me, but I was lost in her story. ‘It went on forever and I thought that was it for me. In his mockumentary Zelig, Woody Allen’s character is a ‘human chameleon’, unconsciously (and physically) mirroring whomever he’s talking to at the moment. Just tell me who I need to call to get money for this.’
I explained how the publishing industry works until we were both depressed. Inside, he had stashed the principal’s paddle.  
Poppy got her white picket fence, but first she had to undergo years of more barbed wire. But the rape case required a new level of Zelig-esque lying. That meant I should be working for Poppy, too. I began job-hunting for her. She didn’t ask for anonymity or we would have tried to get it for her. Zelig transforms his manner, appearance, and even his racial identity; he’s able to establish instant rapport with everyone from rabbis to Nazis. She set up a workplace in a motel room and slept with clients there, using the lobby computer every morning to make her Craigslist dates. She told me that after being called to one job, a group of young men pulled her into an apartment and threw her to the ground. The judge dismissed the case on summary judgment, and it was now out on appeal to a higher court. I met the main plaintiff for the first time; she was gracious, and clearly had no idea who I was. ‘We don’t pay our subjects. I didn’t have to unearth her – she sought us out. ‘They have a dog. I wanted to crawl even closer, deep into this woman’s strange mind, full of cuts and broken mirrors. Sometimes people spit on me.’
I hadn’t considered that the lawsuit could endanger her. I had a live-in fiancé who would later become my husband. ‘You can’t give up.’ When Poppy was silent, I heard myself say, ‘We’d just subpoena you anyway.’
She flinched. Poppy grew up in Oklahoma. Title IX sexual assault lawsuits are now common in the US, but this was one of the first, back in 2002. ‘That cop says he’ll reopen my case if I testify. ‘Come work for me!’ he said. girls?’
‘You could definitely work,’ she said. Of course, Poppy didn’t know any of this. She made every one of those choices herself, Erika.’
These were what appropriate boundaries looked like. I just keep my clothes on. ‘I just want a normal life.’
In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm describes the rapacity of the writer-subject relationship – in both directions. News coverage of the lawsuit had gone national, and Poppy had called a news station to ask them who she should talk to. Because my job wasn’t just getting information.  
Poppy was different, which was part of what made her so valuable to the case. They dropped a couch over her top half, leaving her bottom half exposed. It felt strange to lie to people’s faces – wrong, until I discovered that they actually believed me. I had a new one to inhabit. He was older than me, successful, a man with expensive shirts that matched his eyes, someone who knew how to turn opportunity into money. I needed money, and I had never been the belle of any ball. She got, well, pretty. I craved it with my whole body. He has early-onset bipolar disorder. They tell me about their divorces, cancers, miscarriages, dead fathers. About nine months after our first meeting, we met in person again. In the film, Zelig’s condition is a mental illness. Last month I was offered a career case – a rural cold-case murder of a woman, covered up by local authorities. ‘That’s –’ I said, and lost my words. ‘I – well, it’s not an empowering story, exactly. Shower Curtain Guy liked to sit on a chair in the middle of the room with a shower curtain draped over his naked body. She wasn’t a fragile student victim, or a rapist. Poppy majored in psychology during college, also working as a domestic abuse counselor and a stripper. They fell in love. And the money is more addictive than any drug.” You know what I mean,’ she said. Women were abducted into the ‘comfort woman’ system, or lured with promises of nursing jobs. Her purple-shaded gaze skittered around the restaurant, away from my treacherous face. I could handle it, except my son’s getting teased at school. The case was over. Her anguish felt uncut and addictive. His empathy is extreme and total. This is adult entertainment. ‘Good, because I’m broke.’ And then she articulately answered every question I asked. I bought them drinks, pretending to match their inebriation, wondering if I was playing fair. ‘It seems ironic, but I knew I was acting out stuff from my family, even while I was stripping,’ she said. And my remaining feelings of guilt disappeared completely once I saw the outcome of my work: orphaned babies and dying mothers would get care, drunk drivers and reckless doctors would have to pay cash for their crimes. She was half-Korean (‘Are you Korean?’ she asked me), and in her thirties. Is that a problem?’
Finally, one of the non-profit workers said, ‘Listen. I pretended to agree with players as they insisted that one woman’s ‘discomfort’ was ‘worth it if it means winning a championship’. ‘But can you make it empowering?’ the editor asked. I suddenly understood that she hadn’t given up prostitution. Maybe she was the one who was angry. ‘I’ve got to be honest. She was having some kind of trouble with the police officer who had dismantled her madam business. ‘And that football recruiter used our service all the time.’ Poppy provided prostitutes for him and about a dozen recruits before the police caught her and closed down her business, shortly before she contacted us. They swear we’ve met before (‘You look so familiar!’), because I always seem to look a little like them. Success made it easier, at least. She joined a professional folk dance troupe. ‘What are you going to do, Poppy?’ I asked. I made right choice after right choice until they added up to something terribly wrong. Sex was layered beneath every comment, and her gaze lingered on our lips, fingers. It seemed that no one else would talk to her. I didn’t like to do those jobs because I’m not into mommy fantasies,’ she said firmly, palms pushing something away. ‘I’m sure her attorney is doing his best.’ My employer was a kind man, too kind to tell me how twisted up I was in all this. I admired her skill, her up-and-down looks at my fiancé that somehow included me and complimented me on my taste. Poppy’s eternal mess was her own. She had treated me like one of her tricks, her Adult Babies, her Shower Curtain Guys. But I was no spectator; I got wet. After that, the university settled, and the plaintiffs were awarded $2,850,000. The women were suing the university for fostering the sexually hostile environment that led to their sexual assaults and harassment. Show me your darkest secrets; I’ll keep them. It feels like connection, redemption, even comfort. I said, ‘Maybe you just needed to own your story.’ Then I asked them to put it in writing and give it to me. She’s not.’
Which only made me more desperate. Her picture was everywhere. I was supposed to be the Zelig – not Poppy. ‘Somehow they’re considered to be legal, but I got nailed,’ she grumbled. You could dye it.’
Poppy swung a long lock over her shoulder. ‘Like fast food or Walmart?’
‘I worked there for a week. Poppy was talking about nothing – parties, tricks, sex so casual it was ‘like shaking hands’ (she said this while shaking my handsome fiancé’s hand). ‘She could stock inventory in the back,’ I said. He says it’ll be bad for me.’
The Title IX lawsuit wasn’t going well, either. Kids say stuff like, “Your mom’s a whore.” He’s only fourteen. Poppy’s grandmother was a ‘comfort woman’ during World War II, when the Japanese Imperial Army instituted its ianfu state-run military brothel system. ‘Football fans recognize me when I’m pumping gas, and they throw supersized drinks at me with ice in them. There really aren’t babes in this business.’
‘So you dated the recruiter?’ I asked. I pretended I was pregnant to investigate a maternal death at a hospital. ‘It’s usually something to do with their parents.’
Poppy hired ‘girls’, and took a cut from their earnings. In doing so, I exploited a rape victim, and took everything I could from her. My job was to discover and interview other football rape victims. ‘It’s my face.’
The lawyer’s expression changed from sorrow to shrewd scrutiny. ‘Some of them have temporary housing for families.’
‘My son is special needs. The District Attorney decided not to prosecute one of the football player rapists, despite conclusive DNA evidence and a positive rape kit from one of our witnesses. I remembered a kid in elementary school who once approached me and unbuttoned his shirt. In the name of reducing battle stress, up to forty soldiers a day raped, beat and tortured each woman, all day and all night. I’d say, “This isn’t an escort service where you go to dinner and a movie. Poppy’s confessions quickly spread to the newspaper and the nightly news. But in some cases the recruiter would say, ‘Don’t let the kid know this is a working deal.’ He wanted the kid to think that this kind of thing would happen to him all the time if he came here to play football. ‘They tried to get custody of my son; that’s why I came here. ‘I don’t know. It felt like she had another appointment after ours, but didn’t want to mention it. ‘Because, you know, I’m all about supporting the sistas,’ she told me. I fell into the job of private investigator because I have one of those faces. I imagined Poppy afraid to leave her apartment, crying into a dirty bathrobe, staring into her open refrigerator until it was no longer cold. Prostitutes?’
Poppy winced a little at the word. I scanned ads and called department store warehouses. Perhaps to differentiate myself, I asked, ‘Did you feel like you were victimizing them? ‘I have some magazine contacts, editors I’ve worked with before.’ The animation returned to Poppy’s voice after I told her we’d split the money down the middle.  
Photograph © David Sanborn She didn’t ask me for money. I called the area’s family shelters. ‘All he wants me to do is lick his chest through the shower curtain. The case lasted over five years. ‘I got pregnant when I was nineteen, and my son had special needs. I made so many mistakes with Poppy, but I’m not certain exactly what they were. ‘Lawyers are my best clients,’ Poppy said, and waited for me to write that down for my memo to the legal team. Poppy was distracted, pale, slouching in her seat, and she had gained some weight. I really regret coming forward,’ Poppy said. Some of them were scared, and I felt like they didn’t ask for it, that they were pressured into doing it. But we needed Poppy to testify. And who doesn’t confess to her own mirror? I thought about her problems all the time. Rather, she offered it all to me for free, and I accepted, as I was paid to do. But beneath her words and her blue dress, she was saying very clearly, Take me home with you.  
The Title IX lawsuit was eventually reinstated by an appellate court. I pitched a Poppy story to a magazine editor I was working with at the time. I did what I do when I get uncomfortable – made insulting jokes, ate all the cheese at the appetizer table. ‘I might move out of state,’ she said. Instead, he asked me to send my case files to the firm for destruction, and invited me to the celebration party. The sex industry operated in code and Poppy deciphered it all, describing menus of services, giving us the prices of competing businesses. I learned this from a newspaper article in which a Christian non-profit agency took credit for turning her life around. This is easy, I thought, until the lawyer landed a major David-and-Goliath case. That kind of physical evidence is considered to be indisputable, but the DA’s reason for dismissing it was, ‘We don’t want to look like we’re jumping on the [university] bandwagon.’
‘If my parents find out what I’ve been doing, they’ll come after me,’ Poppy said. I felt like a vigilante. They told me about their traumas, and then promised to sign affidavits under aliases, hoping the legal threads were so knotted that their most horrific moments wouldn’t be printed in the newspaper before they had a chance to tell their parents. ‘Look at that sweet little face. ‘Maybe I could make some real money if I wrote this stuff down?’
I had no doubt Poppy could write. ‘Aw. I might have helped keep thousands of young women safe from sexual exploitation. ‘I’m about to be evicted,’ she said. ‘I had a great idea. I mean, she’s destitute.’ Stupidly, I told her I was going to pay half the money to Poppy. We weren’t friends – what were we? For days afterward I felt ashamed, or maybe angry. Maybe she had been hoping for legal help when she contacted us in the first place. But I turned it down. Someone discreet?’ When they asked about her previous experience, I told them, and they politely declined. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche warns us that we sometimes become monsters when we fight monsters, and if we gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes into us. So was she. ‘It’s not always sex,’ she said. Once enslaved, the women were considered to be ‘public toilets,’ there for military use. Poppy did what she did when she got uncomfortable – hinted at a possible three-way with my fiancé and me. Was that what she thought of me? There are no rules here. I had to keep her ignorant and lure her back to our side. She visibly relaxed when I told her that lunch was on me. Her hair was startlingly long, thick and black, with overgrown Bettie Page bangs. I had already begun a new lawsuit – another university rape in a different state by yet another football player, this one a repeat offender. ‘How?’ he asked. I still felt disoriented, like the fishtailing back end of whatever vehicle Poppy was driving. Poppy had decided to come forward on her own. A bookkeeper? ‘Nobody would have to see her.’ I called acquaintances who had small businesses. She solicits money for secrets; I solicit secrets for money. Poppy also had a client she knew only as ‘Shower Curtain Guy’ (‘I don’t remember names or faces – just anatomy,’ she said). I’m not sure who leaked information to the press – it may well have been Poppy herself – but scandal certainly helped our case. I was working for the greater good of rape victims, right? She was as permeable as air. She was the tawdry face of the lawsuit, a reminder nobody could ignore. I said, ‘I have absolutely no experience.’
He said, ‘Perfect.’
We exchanged contact information. ‘Have you thought about just working a temporary hourly job?’ I asked. My Zelig-like face was my biggest asset as a private investigator. Two female college students had been gang-raped by a group of football recruits and players. He needs a stable home,’ she said miserably. I wish I hadn’t ever said anything.’
I felt sick, but it was my job to lean into her misery, not away. Nothing’s more comforting than the sound of rain when you’re not in it. And now she was famous too. ‘Have you called the police?’
‘Police? You’d be great at it. It’s an ordinary-looking face, but if I ask, ‘How are you?’ sometimes people start crying. ‘Let’s get out of here,’ my fiancé whispered in my ear, and we excused ourselves from Poppy and the party. The legal team and local TV and newspaper reporters were in constant barter, trading and feeding each other witnesses and interviews. When I asked why he had stolen it, he said, ‘Because I’m going to get in trouble today.’
‘I feel bad about her, too,’ the lawyer said. [he] knows on some level what is in store for him, and remains in the relationship anyway, impelled by something stronger than his reason.’ I appreciated Janet Malcolm’s reasoning, but I didn’t believe her. I could barely get out of there,’ she said. But I’ve seen this before. It was weird. It would be better for Poppy and her bullied son if she moved and started over somewhere else. During that time I learned interview skills to complement my face’s natural tendencies: how to use silence, how and when to ask the right questions, how to detect and subvert deception, how to memorize entire conversations without taking notes, how to follow rumors until they turned to fact, and most of all, how to get people to trust me. She was thinner than before, in a snug royal blue dress. Her nail polish gleamed through the strands of black. You don’t know how crazy they are. The problem was, Poppy was guilty. ‘I don’t know if my grandmother was where I got the idea to work,’ Poppy said. ‘Most of the time, the kid gave the money to the girls. ‘Sometimes I feel bad about… The editor used the slow, halting talk that sane people use with the insane. I was too good at persuading people to tell me everything, no matter their personal cost. I always make him buy a new one.’
‘Because it’s unsanitary.’
‘No, I mean, why does he want that?’
She shrugged. I get a job, and I’m gone as soon as they find out. She sidled up to my fiancé and me. But her life has completely fallen apart.’
The lawyer said, ‘She did come forward on her own. I worked for five years to help two students win a lawsuit, one that changed university policy to protect other students from future sexual assaults. His medication was $1000 a month, and the doctors told me I had to either hospitalize him or find a way to keep him at home. ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,’ they repeated, and I didn’t say it was my face. For several victims, I was the first person to hear their stories. It acts like a greater good. Her similes were better than mine (‘Jody’s hair looked like a used Q-tip.’ ‘Wendy had breasts like empty pita pockets.’) But Poppy needed folding money. He did all the referrals. There were no clear lines to her. ‘Doing what?’
‘I need a private investigator for my lawsuits. My lawyer-employer had procured her a pro bono attorney to keep her out of jail. I’ve never been able to fully shake Poppy from my conscience, and after fifteen years of the job, I’ve decided to finally abandon PI work. Sometimes you have to make a sacrifice.’
‘Oh, yes,’ I said, exuding warmth as I internally feared for humanity. She had the delicacy not to call again after that. I wasn’t her, but I could have been. ‘Can you use an assistant? I had a protocol – they had to call in and answer a series of questions. I used to think that’s just how people were, except they’d say, ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you this, I barely know you,’ or ‘I’ve never told this to anyone before,’ or ‘What’s your name?’ Fifteen years ago, it happened with an attorney I had just met at a bookstore (minus the crying), and he said, ‘I don’t understand. She left one message, and then another, more formal one. The dark and the dirt, the weight bending her ribs, and the tearing as each new man forced himself into her. There were six of them. Then he’d call me, sometimes twelve times a day. She was maybe 180 pounds, with a generous lap and comfortable laugh. ‘It’s not a matter of if you get raped in this business. ‘I’m calling them “gas station moments,”’ Poppy said, one side of her mouth jerking upward. And a good one – we won every lawsuit. The Adult Baby was a lawyer. We did it for a cause. The details, the vicious cruelty, the narcissism of the perpetrator – this was PI candy, and I was perfect for the case. But I made $700.’
When Poppy talked about prostitution, she stopped slouching, and her eyes ignited. And so the case kept getting coverage. But you’re the one who’s calling. If my mother weren’t so high-functioning, you’d think she was schizophrenic. She now lives in the suburbs and does public speaking against human trafficking and sexual abuse. Once when he was a baby, they told me to beat him for rolling over on the changing table.’ She grabbed her hair in her fists and shook it a little, staring at the placemat. My fiancé was my date. I knew I’d stop at nothing, not even collateral damage. Of course not – how else would she pay her rent? I called my lawyer-employer, congratulated him, and then asked if he would help Poppy. Poppy was there. Pay this small price; I’ll be your container. And that talent made people want to talk to me, even despite themselves. ‘Whenever a girl called and asked for a job, if she had never done this work before, I’d tell her to think it over. I was in so much pain afterward. Three days later, I began my new part-time career as a private investigator. But it was over, the law firm would get paid for its contingency work, the plaintiffs were vindicated, and the university was court mandated to change policy to protect its female students from sexual assault and harassment. ‘If dating means having sex without money exchanging hands, then yes, we dated.’ Poppy poked an appetizer with one tine of her fork, her flawless manicure gleaming. In the photo Poppy stood smiling in a beige kitchen, glossy hair cropped to her shoulders, using oven mitts to proffer the camera a cherry pie. ‘And I have a dog.’ Our relationship was shifting, and Poppy was speaking to me like a friend. My mixed ancestry often prompts people to believe we share a genetic kinship (‘Are you Chinese?’ ‘Are you Jewish?’ ‘Are you Irish?’). She had an Adult Baby client who outfitted his apartment with an adult-sized crib and high chair. It would be part-time contract work.’ He named an hourly rate that was five times what I was making as a temp receptionist at a pharmaceutical company. The party was crowded, and white men in suits shook each others’ hands. ‘Can you give me more examples?’
I bought nachos for possible rapists in bars that played, ‘Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop’ over the speakers. In this university’s culture, the football team was a ‘greater good’ that needed protection.