Sugar Daddies and Recovery

By Hannah Sward 12/04/16

I knew if I kept seeing him, I would drink. But I was scared. How would I pay my bills without him?

Hands exchanging a bag of coins for a heart.
Could I live without them?

When I first got sober, I had two sugar daddies. I had quit my job at a law school where I spent most of my time in the bathroom sitting on the toilet, crushing lines on top of a bar review book.

My solution to finding another job was posting a headless picture of myself on Craigslist in heels and red garters.

“Sugar Daddy Wanted.”

I met two nice men. Omar, the Iranian, and Harry, the Orthodox Jew.

It was two weeks after our very first meeting that Harry and I had our sixth date downtown at The Georgian. He had on a crisp white shirt and black pleated pants.

He sat on the bed and untied his polished black shoes. “You’re all I’ve been thinking about.”

All I was thinking about was how I was going to be with him without getting high or drinking. I had never been sober with him before. I turned my back, unzipped my skirt. He undressed. His stomach hung and there were patches of gray and black hair. His thighs had red and blue veins. He walked towards me, breathing heavy, a scent of spearmint and baby powder. I just wanted it to be over. He kissed me with his big, too warm lips, and we were on the bed with me on top of him holding my hips, moving his. He groaned and it was over.

He showered, bringing his clothes into the bathroom. I sat on the edge of the bed and waited until he came out. He put on his yarmulke, handed me an envelope and left. I had made a thousand dollars.

I knew if I kept seeing him, I would drink. But I was scared. How would I pay my bills without him? I didn’t have a job. Harry and Omar were my jobs. I had been to enough meetings where I had heard about becoming self-supporting through one's own contributions. I didn’t think that was possible. How would I ever do that? At the same time I was desperate to get sober. I was 38 and there was something in me that knew I was at my end. I didn’t know how I was going to do it—get by without Harry’s help—but I knew it was either Harry or sobriety. I chose sobriety.

Omar was different. The only time we ever had sex was the third time he took me out. He put on Sade and made me an Iranian dinner and I drank lots of red wine. After that, he never pushed for sex. It was like he was courting me. I didn’t understand him—why he was patient and wanted to do things for me like drive all the way from Sherman Oaks in his black waxed Audi to take me to Trader Joe’s, filling the cart with coffee, dish soap and tomatoes on the vine (not the cheap Roma ones that I usually got). He’d help me inside with the groceries, leaving half the month's rent on the table and kissing me goodbye on the cheek.

He’d buy me things that I never wore except when I saw him. I wanted to tell him what I really needed was money to pay the phone bill or something practical, like a new hot plate for my makeshift kitchen, but I didn’t feel right saying that to him.

Once a week we went for sushi on Larchmont. One time, the hostess took our picture. The next time we came the picture was on the wall, the two of us smiling, Omar’s arm around me, a sushi chef’s hat in the background and under the picture in black ink: "Happy couple share fresh squid."

As time went on, I knew he really did care for me and I liked him, the way he smelled, talking to him, going out to dinner once a week with him. But I didn’t feel anything for him romantically. The thing of it was, being with him felt like more than placing an ad on Craigslist and having an arrangement with a sugar daddy. Now that I was sober, it became harder to continue seeing him and I felt that I was using him. And I was, but I was too scared to not have his help.

When I had about three months sober, I talked about Omar at a woman’s meeting. “I can’t keep taking money from him, I’ve got to get a job but I don’t know what. And I can’t, I just can’t, be shut in an office for eight hours and I’m a terrible waitress.”

“Honey,” a lady said. “What you need is a simple sober job. A job where you don’t have to think, you just show up and learn to be on time, honest and accountable.”

“And make ten dollars an hour?” I asked.

“I asked the same thing when I was new but I promise, as long as you stay sober, it will all work out.” 

It didn’t feel like it would but I knew I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing, so that’s what I did. I started working at a friend’s pet food and supply store, Tailwaggers on Fairfax.

Five times a week I stocked dog stew, Grammy’s Pot Pie, mopped the floors and arranged the Swarovski-studded dog collars. The guy who I worked with, turned out he had eight months sober off of meth. We shared stories about going to Rite Aid and looking at thumbtacks for hours at 4 a.m., hanging out with our dealers like Kasper and Turtle, taking apart doorknobs and how hard it was to learn to be in the world sober. While we talked, the whole time we kept stocking those dog cans, trying to stay clean another day.

I had been working at Tailwaggers for a few months when Omar took me to a one-woman show about Janis Joplin that I wanted to see. Hand in hand, we entered the theater on Santa Monica Boulevard across from Dragonfly and 7-Eleven. Streetwalkers were walking back and forth in front of Donut Stop in high heels and backpacks. I felt my shoulders tighten up.

We sat in faded velvet theater seats. Omar put his small arm around me, it felt heavy on my shoulder. I wanted to scratch my nose but my arms, hands felt frozen with Omar next to me. This man knew I lived in a kitchenless room with a hot plate, that I sold Working Dog Stew and Grammy’s Pot Pie for work, and that I placed an ad on Craigslist for a sugar daddy and that I probably had other men.

But I didn’t and Omar, he was still there. The dog food, the no sex, the hot plate. We went to sushi on Larchmont after the play. We ordered octopus and rainbow rolls.

Omar put his warm hand on top of mine.

“You like where I live?” he asked.

“I do.”

But I didn’t. I imagined myself lying next to Omar on a treeless street in Sherman Oaks—a two-bedroom apartment, white carpets, white leather couch, too many white cabinets, steel gray blinds, low ceiling.

“You could go back to school,” he said. “I could get you a new car.”

I was driving a 1987 Ford Taurus wagon and the back end was smashed in. It looked like half a car. My neighbor had left a note on the windshield.

“Don’t park your jalopy in front of my house.”

I had gotten into an accident months ago, but it still ran pretty good and it was too much money to fix and I couldn’t bring myself to ask Omar to help pay for it. Whenever I went to the gym I parked a block away so no one would see. Nobody in LA drives half a car.

I thought about what kind I would get. A white Mini Cooper with a stripe, a black truck. And school, I could get an MFA, quit the dog store, get my nails done every week, get new running shoes and lots of white socks.

“You are a special woman.” He took my hand in his. “We have grown close. I am in love with you.”

I looked up at the picture of us that was still tacked on the wall with other couples. “Happy couple.” My jaw felt tight, I wasn’t hungry. That night he dropped me off at home and drove back alone to Sherman Oaks. The next day I stocked dog food and told Omar I cared for him but I couldn’t do this anymore.

* * *

Without Omar’s help, I worried about how I was going to pay my rent more and more. Every couple of weeks I would get a text from him.

“I hope you are doing okay. Please let me know if you need anything, any help at all.”

“Thank you so much,” I’d text back. “All is well on my end.”

All didn’t feel well, and telling him I was okay for money when I wasn’t sure if I could get by that month—there were so many times I thought I’d break down and see him. Or even see Harry.

I remember one day, about two months after I had last seen Omar, I was at Tailwaggers behind the register in the uniform red t-shirt with a dog paw over my heart. A guy with brown spiky hair walked in with his bulldog on a black studded leash. The dog lifted up his back leg and peed next to a carpeted cat tower and they left. As I took a wad of paper towels and natural disinfectant spray and cleaned up the pee, I thought about the $11 an hour I was making and how, by the end of my shift, I would have made $60.

I broke down in the bathroom crying. I wanted to use, to drink, to not deal with anything. I thought about Harry, how I could just go back to him and make a thousand dollars.

Or Omar. I could go back to school, not worry about rent, get a new car. But I knew I couldn’t live with a man I didn’t love in Sherman Oaks with no trees and a low ceiling, and that if I did, I wouldn’t stay sober. I went back to stocking one can of dog stew at a time until the whole rack was nicely stacked. Then I went home, plugged in my hot plate and warmed almond milk with a little cinnamon and went to bed sober.

Hannah Sward has completed a linking collection of short stories and is finishing a book, Strip.

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