She was an online friend that I knew did phone sex work; I chatted to her via MSN and she kept strange hours. One day, she came out to me about her job. I laughed and didn't think much of it. A couple of months later, she sent me a message asking me if I could "help her out." She had a guy looking to book her for a phone chat for Domination — he wanted to be laughed at and mocked for ten minutes by two women, and if I did it, she would transfer £20 into my bank. The sell to me was that I was her "bitchiest friend, and I'd be perfect for it"', followed by a giggle.
I miss that giggle.
When she said "you need a profile", and I sat looking through a website of baby names to think of what to call myself whilst on webcam with her after too much vodka, she was the one who replied, "You look like a Rachel, actually." I wanted Sophia. Apparently, I always seemed like more of a Rachel. I never thought back then that was the birth of my alter ego.
She was the person I called when I got my heart ripped out, thrown on the ground and stamped all over as though I had handed the gopher from the corn field episode of Twilight Zone to someone rather than, you know, my hopes and dreams. She was the person who shouted "FUCKFACE"' anytime I mentioned my ex with sad, dewy eyes. When the same happened to her, she called me, and I returned the favour. We declared death to relationships, went out and got ridiculously drunk. We danced to shitty 80s music, staggered back to hers, drank more and passed out in her living room. And carried on the next day.
She was the person I cut my sex work teeth with. Too scared to do anything by myself, my first phone bookings were always with her. I hid behind her coat tails where it felt safe; I was shy, quiet and geeky. She was the person I called when I first went shopping for work underwear, and hated the sight of myself in it. It was her at the other end of the line encouraging me to believe in myself, to own my sexiness.
When I started meeting clients, she was the only person who knew for a long time. I knew she would have been the only person who would never have judged me, or treated me differently. As soon as I mentioned that I was thinking about it, she had searched it, and sent me links on safety/screening procedures written by other sex workers. My personal safety was the most important part; "go in smart." When I had my first booking, she was the first person I called. She never asked me any invasive questions — all she cared about was that I was safe, both physically and emotionally. And when I sat in my bedroom decompressing, she was at the other end of the line like a lighthouse; without judgement, without encouragement, just listening and speaking as a friend. For years, she was my safety contact. She watched me go from a really awkward, rabbit in headlights, oh-god-what-am-I-even-doing escort to someone more sleek and professional. She saw my confidence grow, both professionally and personally. When she saw me dressed up with makeup, heels, nails, hair, and dresses as opposed to hiding, she genuinely smiled and said how "hot" I looked. She asked me if I didn't see that guy looking at me across the bar, and asked me why I never saw myself. When I wanted to lose weight for me, she stood by me. We saved each other at house parties. We got loaded up on pre-drink before hitting clubs. We sent each other texts in our own language that no-one else would have understood the significance or humour of. We shared clothes. We shared a bed. We shared a bottle of that shitty Mickey Finns playing Never Have I Ever and passed out. We shared our alter egos, but we shared our own lives.
Whatever happened in life, she was a consistent figure there. There were times with her that I laughed that hard I had stitches — sometimes work related, sometimes life. She was the sister I never had, in more ways than one. We watched each other cry, grieve, succeed, struggle, change - and look out for each other's safety. We never argued; ever. The closest was not speaking to each other for a week, until she texted me with "dickhead."
And then she died, because life is sometimes sick and life is sometimes fucking cruel.
I slid down the side of my kitchen wall and screamed into my hands the day I got the call; I started calling her, expecting her to pick up, then threw my phone and started shouting at it on the floor. I read, and re-read, texts and messages I had from her, hoping desperately to see her status change to online. Denial mixed with bargaining is a powerful, cruel master, and despite being a very, very lapsed Catholic, I begged that I would wake up and it was just a bad dream, or that someone had got it wrong. Bereavement, in general, is a cruel owner, a Pandora's box of regurgitated, repressed emotions — and a week or so later, I found myself sitting in a church, bawling my eyes out. I couldn't get words out to speak. There was only disbelief, anger and guilt.
I looked at photos that have been placed around the walls, and there are photos of her and I — some drunk, some sober, some I've never even seen. One of her relatives comes up, introduces himself, and says how she spoke about me often and smiles. I felt my bottom lip start to shake again. In time, we are all stories handed down to others, with their laughter only heard in your memory. We all become images trapped behind glass, names in phone books that we still absently think to dial. Someone else will probably answer that number now. Nevertheless, their status never switches back to online, and your last messages will sit, forever, with one tick next to them. One day I will come to accept all of this, but as I sat there in those weeks, I could only stare numbly at walls and feel my mind swirl, like being caught in a whirlpool that never quite gives me the relief of just drowning me.
She watched me become Rachel, and for the longest time, she was the only person who knew I shared my life with Rachel. In turn, I knew about her alter ego. But we knew a friendship that spanned beyond the course of work. She was a person; a human being, with thoughts, hopes, and dreams. Wherever Rachel goes, there is a part of her alter ego bound with her — when I came back post retirement under a new profile, I steeled myself for the day I got a phone call from someone who called us both. Do I lie? Do I tell the truth? Even the thought of saying her name made my voice start to crack. She was — is — a person.
I gaze back at where I started, and there she is. I had the privilege of being able to share aspects of me with her. Yet some of the biggest laughs, some of the parts of my life she walked with me when I needed a friend most — they remain cloaked. I should have told her how grateful I was for her being in my life, but I thought she would always be there. I will live with that for the rest of my life, and I accept that; it made me realise that perhaps I shouldn't take people for granted. Life goes on apparently. There is a new safety contact. I laugh with others when I have a bad day. I build other friendships via work. Nevertheless, I still find myself scrolling to find your name in my phone. I talk about the things that would have made you laugh. I still wish things were different — however selfish that may make me.
To some people, she was just a character, much like I am just a character. We have families, friends, loved ones. We are people. We feel; we think; we are human. I am only faceless on the internet. So was she.
She mattered; she still matters. Somewhere, I would like to hope she feels at peace. There are parts of my friendship with her that have remained silent, stored in a box under the bed — people see the words "sex worker" and rush to other points to make. Sometimes there is no point to make; sometimes you just have to step back and remember that you are dealing with human lives in all their fragility. Loss is universal. You may never understand this, but you can understand the pain of losing someone close to you. You can understand a friendship where you trust someone innately — only to lose that person, and live with the sorrow.
People are not so different, wherever you go.