I lean into the shady part of the wall, dip my hat over my eyes, and seek respite from the fierce heat. The Mediterranean midday sun is relentless and uncomfortable to work in, but that's what I am doing, back on the street after a short break. That last customer was vile. I can still smell his rancid breath and feel his savage degradation of my body. I had to slip on a long sleeved blouse to conceal the impressions of his fat fingers as they fiercely gripped me and pinned me down. Obvious bruises can be such a turn off to customers; the ones who aren't turned off are not the type I want to attract. The reason I pay Adam so much is to protect me when I press the button. “Where was he when I needed him?” I think angrily, “he’s happy enough to take my money, not so quick with the protection!”
The burdens and struggles of my new life lie oppressively on my shoulders, mimicking the stillness of the midday heat. Never before has the irony of this life felt so intense. I have escaped and exchanged one kind of limitation of liberty and cruelty for a life much darker and degrading.
It wasn't always like this but the life of a young widow in my homeland is tough. So when my friend approached me with the promise of a new life in the West, I listened. The journey was always going to be risky, crossing many borders on foot, then a treacherous sea journey before time in a refugee camp. But I held hope of a better future, perhaps even love.
When our boat sank off the southern coast of this island, it was chaos and I was thankful for the captain of the small boat that hauled me – and others - on board. It wasn't till later as I sat in the dank, dark room that I saw we were all female, except for a couple of teenage boys. It was even later that I realised we were handpicked out of the sea for a purpose more sinister than compassionate.
I shudder involuntarily as cold shivers course through my body. Memories that threaten to unravel me are pushed down as I dig my nails down into my palms with such ferocity that I draw blood. “That's not helpful!” I tell myself.
The life of a trafficked sex worker here in the back streets of this port is hard. All those men, the hundreds who have clawed my flesh, satisfied their carnal desires, then returned to their dutiful catholic wives, and confessed to the priest. What hypocrites! Yet without them, no money for Adam, no rent, no room, no food.
I lift my head up and see a man approaching – a customer – who else would venture out in this ferocious heat? Most sensible people are back home in the shade, taking a welcome siesta. Despite the pain, I force myself to stand upright and pose provocatively. How quickly I have transformed from being a demure and loving Muslim wife to this!
There is something about him that rouses my curiosity. Something intangible but …essentially good. He doesn't belong around here; yet he walks with such assurance and calm confidence that shows he's comfortable. More than that, there's a determination, no, deliberation. I panic, “He is here to see me.” That can only mean one thing - I've been recommended by a regular.
Straightening my clothes and licking my lips, I catch his eye and his expression changes. What do I see there? Disgust? Lust? Oh, no, far worse. Kindness! Compassion! Recognition? Have I worked him before?
I turn away in confusion, but a compulsion to look causes me to lock eyes again. He is right by my side, holds my gaze and my insides turn to liquid. Reaching out to steady myself on the wall, my legs weaken as I melt under his gently penetrating gaze. It is as if he sees right past the veneer of prostitution, past the sadness and grief, and connects with my very soul.
“Do you have any love to give?” he asks.
Shocked by his proximity and by the timbre of his voice - he's not from round here – I hear my angry voice spit out: “Do I look like I am giving love!! That's not what I am doing! I am selling cheap love, with benefits. Do you want to buy?”
I move lasciviously and my body touches his. I am unprepared for the jolt of … something indescribable course through my veins. I feel hot … and I feel … clean.
This is no normal customer.
“Men like you don't usually venture here.” I utter, with confusion and embarrassment.
A shadow of a smile flashes across his face and he shakes his head, “No, you’re probably right. But I am here, and I am looking for love.”
I am used to being numb when I am out on the streets but, in his presence, I feel vulnerable, raw. I am not used to feeling shame when I am working. I turn on an act and perform. I don't feel anything – no personal connection, nothing physical, nothing emotional, just mind-numbing detachment. But this man has connected to something deep inside and I feel more alive than ever. And I don’t know how to respond to him.
I try again. “You're a bit off the beaten track here – why are you asking me to give you love? Only cheap love is for sale here – you do know what I sell on this street, don't you?”
“If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are talking to, if you only knew how much God loves you, and what freedom He has for you, then you would ask me and I would give you eternal love.” He replies, enigmatically.
“Eternal love? That’s a joke. Love is not eternal” I respond, angrily. “I know that only too well.” The grief of losing my beloved rips into my heart afresh.
Freedom, God, love, what on earth is wrong with this man? I wonder what's come over me; I never usually hold a conversation with a customer. But he draws me in, connects with me.
He continues, “Anyone who buys cheap love will soon become dissatisfied. But those who take the love that I give – this eternal love - will never be dissatisfied again. It becomes a bubbling source within them, giving them eternal love and eternal life.”
Eternal life! Eternal Love! I realise that he's one of those religious freaks who travel in pairs and give leaflets out to us street women. I wonder what they’d say if they saw me here talking with one of them. All they do is look at us with sympathetic faces, and judging eyes and inside you know they can’t wait to get out of this place. They talk about Jesus, wanting to save us! If they only realised the trouble they cause.
I glance around warily – no Adam that I can see!
I know all about Jesus the prophet; I can go along with this. I can play the game.
“Please ... give me some of this eternal love, then I won't have to work to sell love again in the midday sun!” I mock, pushing my body towards his.
“Go and get your husband,” he appeals.
Ouch! That hurts. “I don't have a husband.” I retort.
“That's nicely put and a bit of an understatement. True, your husband died in your homeland and the inconsolable grief you experienced motivated you to travel across land and sea to reach a better life. Now, you have a man who provides you with food, clothes and a roof over your head. The one who forces you onto the streets to sell your body.” He leans over and gently touches my arms, precisely where my concealed bruises are. “Then there are the innumerable men who have taken their pound of flesh, taken what is the intimate pleasure of a husband.
Confused by his knowledge, I reply: “Sir, you must be a prophet. So tell me, why is it that you Christians worship Jesus as the Messiah, while we Muslims claim he is only a prophet like Mohammed?”
He replied, “Believe me, beloved one, the time has come when it no longer matters who you are or what you've done, whether you were born Christian, or Muslim, or Jew, or whether you have any faith at all. You Muslims know very little about Jesus as Son of God, as Son of Man, while I know all about him. Now true worshippers worship God the Father in spirit and truth. God the Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.
I am Jesus, and I am here to meet you, to show you how much I love you and to help you to leave this life for one of freedom with me.” he continues, “Believe me, how you are living and what you're doing now doesn’t mean that I am disinterested in you. In fact, it breaks my heart to see you caught in prostitution, selling your body, hurting, alone and ashamed. It does matter to me that you have become numb to human relationships. The truth is that God the Father sent me, Jesus His son, to tell you that He loves you so much that by believing in me, you shall not be condemned but have everlasting life. That's the eternal love that is on offer.”
His words anchor into the deep, hurting place in my soul and I feel fit to burst. Wave upon wave of something indescribable flows through me. My senses all explode with inexpressible mirth, joy unknown. Doubts vanish; darkness flees from inside of me. All at once, I know. He speaks the truth. He is the truth! He is God.
“Sir, I know! I know that you are He, the One they call Jesus, the One I ... love? ” I reply in awestruck wonder. What is coming over me? I don’t know how to love him.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Adam on the other side of the road, pacing up and down, looking curiously at me. Probably wondering why this man and I are still in conversation and not earning him some cash in my room.
“We can't stand and talk any more. We’re being watched.” I jab my finger towards the doorway where Adam is glaring at us. “How will I ever be free of him! If you don't go away – or come inside – then he'll give both of us a beating.”
He leans in closer and whispers, “I will show you how to love me. I will show you a new way to live. I have a plan to share with you, plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. Let me come to your room and explain. One thing we need to be clear about. I will pay you for your time but I'm not buying cheap love from you. This I can tell you. If you choose to trust me and do as I ask, today is the last day you ever… ever… need to do this again.“
I can’t wait to tell all the other women about him... they will never believe me. With a shy smile, I turn, intrigued, and I lead him to the doorway, up the stairs to my room.
(Written by Fiona Carney. Based on John 4:1-26. Posted April 2016)