It is deep night at the Intourist Hotel, an extravagant home away from home for traveling international executives. As the former Soviet Union eases slowly into the hot tub of a market economy, an incoming tide of foreign businessmen bearing wads of American one hundred dollar bills has changed the complexion of this elegant hostelry. It leads some to call this businessman's hotel the Taj Mahal of Whorehouses, a place where a man is screwed out of his cash in luxury and still sleeps with a smile. And if he runs out of cash, there is always American Express. Indeed, the finest whores from a thousand miles around – the lusty daughters of coal miners, farmers, mechanics, and Orthodox priests --- come to the Intourist Hotel on pilgrimages, hoping for a chance to audition, an army of optimistic bimbos eager to be allowed in and earn more for the services they render, and the ephemeral ecstasy they evoke. But earning more is not so easy.
In the great hotel the halls are quiet, the bar is closed, and everyone sleeps peacefully except for one woman. She awoke after a night of heavy drinking to find one of her stockings is missing. Now she searches relentlessly for it. Good stockings are still in short supply, and expensive – especially the very long kind she wears over her magnificent legs. She prowls through the hotel’s dark hallways toward the lobby, trying to recall where she might have lost it, and with whom. She stops for a moment to look at the ridiculous image of a beautiful, disheveled woman in a hallway mirror. She curses and moves on. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot remember the night before. This is not unusual, but this time a luxury stocking has been lost and that makes it serious. Who she was with last night, or even how many she had been with, did not matter as she randomly entered a banquet room.
Everyone calls her Vortex. She is a 37- year-old prostitute who looks fifteen years younger. Without heavy exercise, without dieting, without even respecting her body, she somehow maintains her extravagant beauty, her creamy skin, her clear eyes, and firm flesh. While other women her age fatten and wrinkle, Vortex is unblemished, proof that genes have no sense of justice. Even her years in prison had cost nothing. Every time she spent a few years in jail she grew stronger, more beautiful, and more comfortable with who she was and what she was. She knows lots of girls who hate themselves because they love to sell their bodies. Such girls crave what they do and hate themselves for doing it. Vortex says to these girls, “Don’t hate yourself for loving your work. Hate the men who hold out money and take advantage of your natural weakness to make you do such things. Hating the man you are with makes it easy for you to work, and impossible for him to get anything free.” And she is right. She has never serviced a customer she did not hate, even as she charms him and performs the most intimate sexual favors with a smile. Vortex is, in every sense, a professional.
Five months ago she got out of prison from a drug arrest and connected with an old pimp of hers who knew the assistant manager at Intourist. Vortex had worked at Intourist before, four years ago. But things had changed. Everyone now is new and memories are short. Instead of returning as honored royalty, she crawled and begged like the other girls. It took three months of negotiations and half-a-dozen nights in bed with the assistant manager to prove she is a world class whore who would not besmirch the façade of Intourist. In the end, the deal goes like this: the assistant manager gets $1,000 dollars a month in American cash or euros, plus 10% of her gross. Then she and the pimp split the rest, 60/40, with 60% going to the pimp. Vortex could not believe she’d been able to cut such a good deal. Getting 40% of the remainder from working at Intourist would make her rich within two years. Now, more than ever, she swears there is nothing she will not do for a man if the price is high enough. But the big money is in the future. For now, she is just getting started again at Intourist and she owes a lot of money. A month from now she wouldn’t spend a minute looking for a lost stocking. But tonight she needs it because she can't afford to replace it.
As Vortex enters the banquet room she sees Lyova, the young bartender she often chats with early in the night when things are slow. She always tips him for steering customers her way, as she does the bellhops, the restaurant waiters, the switchboard operator, and the room service maids. Everyone gets a taste when they help Vortex connect with a customer.
Lyova is 25 years old, the son of a well-known doctor. A few years ago he worked part time at Intourist and was headed for medical school. But he was weak, and the black snakes that live inside his head took charge of his life. Two years ago he fell in love with Anna, one of the girls at the hotel. Being a drunkard, he swallowed too much gin one night and married her. His father turned purple with rage when he found out. "You marry a red-haired whore! A woman with black hair can be a whore but no one knows by looking at her. Everyone knows a woman with red hair is a whore. It is a medical fact! And now you want me to call her my daughter and invite her to my dinner table? I disown you. Get out of my house and never come back. You will never be a doctor. You are a drunk and a fool who cannot be trusted." Since then Lyova worked and lived at the hotel. Now he sits at a large table in the huge banquet room with an open bottle in front of him.
"Where is Anna?" Vortex asks as she walks toward him.
"An Arab paid her a fortune to spend all night," Lyova answers with a grin. "We will be rich this week. Next week, who knows?"
"Do you have any vodka left?" asks Vortex. "I need a drink." Seeing the look on Lyova’s face, she says, "You son of a bitch, I'll pay for the drink as soon as I get a customer. But first I have to find my stocking."
Lyova laughs and starts to pour. Vortex sits and he slides a generous drink toward her.
“I was away from the Intourist for a few years. In jail,” she says calmly as she starts to sip the vodka. “ I was younger the first time. They started to call me Vortex because I was like a hurricane, sucking men into an irresistible whirlwind of physical pleasure. I gave men things no other woman even imagined. Now I do it again, but even better. I learned new things in prison. I will be important here within a few months, Lyova. Be kind to me now and I will see you are rewarded.”
“With your ass?” Lyova asks insolently.
“If that’s what you want, but you are married to a whore. What could you want that sweet little red-haired Anna will not give you?” Vortex whispers.
:Lyova leans forward and says, “That’s up to you to show me.”
“You are a piece of shit, and I lost my stocking. What good are you to me?” Vortex snaps.
Lyova says nothing. Long before she returned, he had heard stories about the whore they called Vortex. Now he sits with her, alone, and tries to hide his childish awe. He pours her more vodka and looks into the deep black eyes of a woman who is magnificent beyond description.
“Things changed after I went to jail. Now Intourist is full of young, 18 year old girls with the smell of milk on their skin. How do I compete with such youth?” Vortex asks lowering her head into her hands. Then she looks up with a wicked smile, “I do it with serenity. The young ones wink and wiggle and show their asses. I look at a man with confidence, with serenity. I speak calmly like a wise mother and that makes the man fall in love with me. The young ones watch me do this and have no idea of what they are witnessing. I always win,” she says.
“Even in your nightmares?” asks Lyova.
She stares at him, a flash of anger streaks across her face.
“Tell me your nightmare and I will pour you another drink,” Lyova says, tipping the bottle over her glass, but not yet pouring.
“I hope Anna gives you HIV,” Vortex says calmly. “And syphilis, gonorrhea, and herpes. You deserve every pain, itch, and lesion a man can suffer. Go ahead and pour. I will tell you my nightmare. You are too drunk to remember so it doesn’t matter,” she says. Then she gathers her thoughts: “In my nightmare am powerless. When I come up to a man I know what to do and how to do it. I know what to say, and how to act, but I can do nothing to get him interested in me. Years cheapen me. I am old and he does not want me even though I am the best whore a man could want. Then, suddenly I realize I am alone -- forever. That is my nightmare.”
They sit in silence. The aromas of cigarettes, perfume, and alcohol blend into a thick vapor that evokes powerful nostalgia. She has a vision of a beautiful woman powdering her cheeks and looking into a beautician’s mirror. A line from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets comes to mind: My glass shall not persuade me I am old.
“Once I knew all of Shakespeare’s Sonnets by heart,” she says, “but now I can only remember a few. My memory is not the same. I once thought my intellect was the key to my success with men. Ha! What a fool! I learned intellect without smooth skin and perky breasts means nothing. One son-of-a-bitch customer told me the other day that he came to sleep with beauty, not with Pushkin’s poetry. I made sure he had trouble finding his orgasm even though I pretended to be working hard to help him. How dare he insult Pushkin! Now where is my stocking,” Vortex says as she looks around.
Lyova nods, resonating in sympathy with her drunken self-assessment “Things are tough, even for my Anna. She is not yet thirty and she is pretty, but she finds it hard to compete with the young girls. She must go for 30% less than what she got five years ago – all while prices everywhere are going up!”
Vortex falls nods in agreement. Business is business, and a business girl must honor commercial realities. “Anna still makes money. The difference between a fifty dollar whore and a hundred dollar whore is infinitely smaller than the difference between the fifty dollar whore and one who makes nothing. Lyova, pour me one more, or I will go insane with these thoughts. Your wife still has money to pay bills and I don't. I owe too much. I don't know how I will pay for this bottle of vodka. I have no idea where I will get money to buy a new pair of stockings.”
Lyova fills both glasses. “Anna and I don’t live well. We argue more and more. I don’t know where this relationship is going. Every night she is in a room with a wealthy man having fun. I feel so lonely I drink all the time. I don’t hear from my family. My father is sick and will be gone soon. Even so he says he doesn’t want to see me. My brother will inherit everything and he doesn't want to know me either.
“I felt lonely before marriage but now it’s worse. I don't know what we’ll be doing tomorrow and how we will live. I quit my studies. Anna came from a coal miner’s family with no education, no profession. I‘m afraid. Our future frightens me.”
Vortex empties her glass, lights a cigarette, and says, “The problem with most relationships is that people cannot bear loneliness. In order not to be lonely, people settle for just anyone. Later, when they find they’re not right for each other, they try to change the other person. Don't do this. Let your wife be what she is and try to entertain yourself.”
You don't understand me, Vortex,” Lyova exclaims. “It is not about changing each other. It is about our future. I was born and bred in good circumstances and I used to be more careful about the future than Anna was. She suddenly passed from poverty to easy money, but now we’re slowly drifting toward poverty. She doesn't care. She says poverty is not bad. She is extravagant now because she was poor once. She wants to know what it feels like to spend like a rich person. But I was never poor. I know poverty only by hearsay and I don't want to come into contact with it.”
“I see,” Vortex says, assuming the posture of a lecturing professor. “Anna was seduced by the same magical thinking most girls in our profession suffer from. They think their bodies and beauty will last forever, like bronze statues that can be touched again and again, until the end of time. They don't understand that beauty and youth will vanish, faster than they can imagine, leaving them with nothing to sell,” Vortex says, her eyes misting over. “Like me, now. Lyova, God damn you, let’s finish this bottle now! I can't stand this depression. It’s over for me. I can't get anything from men now. I used to have as much as I wanted and now I just can't get anything. This is so terrible.”
Lyova pours the last of the vodka into her glass and says, “When you talked about Shakespeare, I was thinking of my father. His favorite is Henry VI. When I told him that I married a girl from Intourist he said I wouldn’t inherit a kopek from him because that coal miner’s daughter would squander everything. The last words he spoke to me were about her. He quoted from Henry VI ‘ .... the adage must be verified that beggars mounted run their horse to death.’ What can I do? He will probably die within week or two.”
They sat in silence for minutes, each consumed by their obsessions and the meaning of that passage from Henry VI, but they are too drunk to comprehend it.
“Lyova,” Vortex shouts suddenly. “I can't let you to be down and I myself cannot stand this any more. Let's mount our horses and run them to death.” She stands as she speaks and makes a sweeping gesture with her arm, knocking her purse off the table. It spins in the air and sprays its contents everywhere. There on the floor is a long, dark, gray stocking coiled around a package of condoms. “My stocking!” Vortex screams. “Look, it’s there. Now everything is perfect again. Music, Lyova! I want music. You can't refuse a lady. We can't stay so depressed. Let's dance till the morning light. Life is not bad. We painted it dark, but it's bright and wonderful. The party must go on.”
Lyova laughs and walks toward the music center. He is so drunk he fumbles with the CD. Vortex grabs it from him and expertly slides it into the coyly waiting slot. The music erupts and fills the huge banquet hall. “Count, two, three …and maybe you miss me … maybe you kiss me … one, two, three….”.
“Count, two, three .. “ the two of them sing together with the music. Now they start to move, faster, wilder. Vortex shouts, “Faster boy! We live only once. Let's go, hop, hop… maybe you miss me … maybe you kiss me … one, two, three ….”
They whirl around the hall at an insane speed. This woman is a hurricane, Lyova thinks to himself. She is a true hurricane. Vortex begins to shout over and over, “Whip our horses! Whip them!”