The Glory Days of Aimée Bonnard
Chapter 1 – Glory Days
Nobody comes to a brothel seeking a true story. It’s what I tell myself each morning, sipping the coffee devoid of chicory I’m still getting used to, letting the breeze come in through the open window of my hotel room, inhaling it for courage. Galveston smells of two things: salt air and money. It’s a good reminder of why I’m here. With its bustling port, the Cotton Exchange, its glorious mansions and never ceasing activity, this bountiful barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico is an excellent place to reinvent myself.
I weave together the highlights of a story that’s more enticing than it is believable. I play at disguising or enhancing the hint of French in my accent. I opt for enhancing it. I write my own letter of reference. I am no longer Yvonne, the prostitute who fled New Orleans after her best friend’s death. I am Aimée Bonnard, and here in Galveston I will find a new benefactress among the local madams.
I prefer to pretend I have never been to the Crescent City. I’ve never been to Madame Rouge, never met a girl of the night called Marie, never seen that alluring birthmark on her lip, never danced with her in the Vieux Carré, never followed her into a hotel suite I should never have been in. For all intents and purposes I am not Yvonne LaCroix. I don’t even look like her, or so I hope. With my bangs cut short, my hair combed differently, and never wearing her signature fragrance, it’s easy to forget I’ve ever been her. It’s not her face I see when I look in the mirror. I abandoned her the moment I fled New Orleans. As the steamship approached Galveston and I embarked upon my new life here, I chose a new name, a new identity for myself.
I am Aimée Bonnard. I come from Paris, where at the famous Chabanais, I’ve sampled supreme vices. I’m twenty-two years old to Yvonne’s twenty-five. It cost me a few sleepless nights, but I was able to convince myself it’s all right to spin a tall tale. Clients and madams alike are looking for an alluring persona, not the real woman behind it. And as glamorous and successful as Marie was, nobody would take too much trouble investigating the death of a prostitute – especially if it means ruffling the feathers of important men who cannot afford such a scandal.
I could, of course, take my savings and keep running. I could live modestly. Abandon silks and fine meals along with the chicory I so miss. I could make my way slowly to some dusty Texas town and rent a room there, become invisible. But I was meant for greatness, and the knowledge that nobody stands to profit from finding me emboldens me to try my luck again, here in this bustling port town, where there is wealth unmeasured and the houses of prostitution are very fine indeed.
The hotel itself is decadent enough to remind me of the life I want. I chose it for that reason. I picked the most expensive one, not only because I am spoiled – which I am – but also because I knew a fine establishment would motivate me. The view from my windows is my favorite feature of this room. The masts of ships visible behind the roofs of buildings, the cries of seagulls and the salt air wafting in with the breeze, the voices of people outside in the bustling commercial district, it all energizes me. I know in coming to Galveston I have come to the right place. And though at twenty-five many a girl has seen her glory days already past, as Aimée I am only twenty-two, fresh as a rose, and I am in a new town, a wealthy lucrative environment.
My glory days are only just beginning.
Before I start calling on the madams, I make a list in my mind of my requirements: the money and the creature comforts I wish to obtain in exchange for my services. They respect you more when you ask for more. And I will demand of the madams and their households higher standards still than I do from this hotel where I’m paying dearly. I dismiss the notion of asking for chicory coffee though. It might give me away. Why would a girl from Paris ask for such a thing? A less intelligent person might not think of details such as this, but I do. I’ve never traveled away from New Orleans before, but I have entertained men from many places, and I’ve listened to their stories. Likewise, I’ve followed Madame’s advice to read widely – the paper and a great many books. For educated girls make better listeners, and it’s the best listeners that make the most money.
Of course, while I don’t think it’s plausible that the police or any vengeful private person will investigate Marie’s death too deeply, I’m also not a fool, and I know it’s best to be cautious. It’s ironic given my line of work, that what I’ve truly lost in this unfortunate debacle is my reputation. You’d think a fallen woman would not have a reputation to protect, but a pedigreed prostitute is a prize horse, not a mere piece of meat.
Forced to leave behind my track record at Madame Rouge and assume a new identity, I have no proof that a night with me is worth one hundred dollars, when this port town is full of pretty young girls willing to offer sailors a quick thrill for a small fraction of that. What I aspire to is not a sordid situation where I rent my body by the quarter hour in a stingy little room with a sad little wash basin. If those were my prospects, I’d rather live modestly off my savings for the rest of my days.
What I am looking for is an elegant house, a house of sophistication and refinement. A room of my own other than the one I entertain clients in. Beautiful dresses of the finest silk. Fragrances. Rouge in tiny crystal jars, rouge so subtle I look like a blushing rosebud instead of a painted lady. Embroidered petticoats. Silk stockings. Chocolate. Good coffee. But most of all, a chance at something grander and more thrilling than most respectable people can aspire to.
So I must find a way to capture the attention of the local madams. The assets I can use to advertise my profitability are my appearance, my allure, and the fake letter from France I took the liberty of writing myself, not even altering my handwriting because there is no reason why the local madams would recognize it. The beauty of this letter is that its proof of authenticity will lie as much in the Galveston madams’ own desire to believe me as in my appearance and demeanor, my ability to show on the spot that I am an unparalleled seductress and entertainer. To that end I shall have to seduce and entertain the madams themselves. And that is a difficult task, because a woman who has mastered the art of fooling men should be a difficult creature to fool. But we all ultimately believe what is most convenient to us and madams are no exception. If only there were a way to make myself believe that I was not at fault in Marie’s death. Will my guilt and remorse haunt me forever?
Marie was young, too young to die. She was younger than me and fairer. Marie had blonde hair to my black curls, she had a voice like a nightingale, she had the thinnest waist of all of us at Madame Rouge, the prettiest dresses, and she earned more than I did – but I don’t know by how much. Marie was more accomplished in some ways, yet scrappier in others. Her musical talent was evident and she picked up the piano without much effort. Yet she spoke not a word of French. She could remember the lyrics to every song, yet it took much practice to get her to say at least a few phrases that were de rigueur. The only clients that didn’t prefer her to me were the French speaking ones. The girl could spin a tale. She understood just like I did what Madame Rouge taught us about entertaining men beyond just the carnal. She took it to heart, and rumors had it that she was the most successful prostitute of us all.
I envied Marie. I envied her in a way that is more of a mortal sin than all the other sins I’ve committed. How I wish I could change that now. How I wish I could change every interaction we had until that unfortunate night, and how I wish I could change, above all, the actions that led to that poor girl’s demise. I’m trying to tell myself I never wished her dead, but it’s not entirely true. And for that I shall repent for all eternity. If I’m not captured and dragged back to New Orleans to go to jail, I shall return for sure after my death and haunt the corridors of that hotel where Marie died. I wonder if she will too. I wonder if as ghosts we’ll meet. If I’ll get the chance to tell her I’m sorry. Like a bucket of cold ice thrown in my face, I have a vision of Marie slapping me. And I’m chilled to the bone because I know for certain that if we are to ever meet again on the other side, she will never forgive me.
But no, I cannot think about that now. I cannot think about Marie’s eternal anger or even the damnation of my soul. For now I am very much alive and I am here in Galveston where I have one more chance to embody the talented courtesan Madame Rouge has taught me to be. This time I will do things right. This time I will not let my emotions interfere with my vocation. This time nobody will end up dead.
First though, I need to find the right madam. I will not go calling on them like your average girl. I want them to notice me. I want them to covet me. I’ll find out who these women are and where they shop, where they have their dresses made. Once, in a different life, I was a dressmaker’s apprentice. The only thing I learned in that capacity is that connections between women who trade in desire are often made while one of them is being fitted for a dress.
So I will find out where local madams buy their silks, and where they have their gowns made. I will make a point of showing up and looking good. I will be accompanied by hushed whispers and a general sense of awe. I will create my own advertising by fueling gossip. They will hear rumors about me before they set eyes on me. By the time I grace their doorsteps coming to inquire as if I am a customer trying to decide if a resort is up to snuff, they will be thrilled to see me.
But first I need information. I need accomplices. Spies. A shopgirl amenable to the occasional extra coin, but also a loose-tongued one, greedy for gossip and speculation. A shopgirl or a seamstress. Seamstresses love to talk. So do servants. There have to be loose-tongued maids in this hotel. And a bellboy. A bellboy who might perhaps be a little infatuated with me. I smile. I’m already feeling better.
Over the next few weeks, I select my confidantes and tell them stories about Le Chabanais – the most famous brothel in the world. I describe the girls, the bedrooms with their intricate décor, the bathtub full of champagne – all details I’ve collected from the stories of Madame Rouge. Like me, she’d never been to Paris, but she was fascinated by the allure of this legendary establishment. Occasionally, we’d meet a client who claimed to have visited Le Chabanais. We gathered anecdotes like pearls, and though I suspect some might be embellished, that never dulled their charm, but rather enhanced it. Now, I use these pearls like a trail of breadcrumbs that will hopefully lead the right madam to me.
“There is a room at Le Chabanais, where the walls are coated in this type of silk,” I tell a shopgirl at Garbade, Eiband, & Co, running my finger over a wine-colored fabric with subtle purple gleams. “The insulation of their rooms is superior. Excellent privacy, if you know what I mean.”
Her eyes are curious and confused. “Of course,” I add, “I shouldn’t talk to a nice girl like you about such things. It just reminded me. That place, it’s impossible to forget. Its luxury is overwhelming. I doubt Galveston has such houses. It seems so… wholesome and serene.”
I continue this game in my dealings with shopgirls, hotel maids, milliners, and seamstresses. I bring up a life of luxury and sin, then occasionally ask questions about the local madams, the local prostitutes. I ask for discretion about these inquiries, pay for it, in fact. Make them swear on all that is sacred they won’t tell anyone that I’m a fallen woman looking for a fine house where I can sell my body for a fortune. Requiring secrecy is meant to embolden them to talk more. If you want people to gossip, ask for their discretion. The rumors that would ruin a decent girl are my advertising campaign.
I only hope the hotel will not start persecuting me. A silent lobby and judgmental glances are quite satisfying, an indication that the rumor mill is working. Cold coffee, on the other hand, cold meals, no fresh towels, or God forbid, an eviction notice would be quite unsavory. And if the news of such persecution should spread, I would lose my advantage in my negotiations with the madams. No matter my beauty or other accomplishments, my dresses, and all my anecdotes of Le Chabanais, a madam can smell the slightest whiff of desperation on a girl. When a madam becomes a savior instead of a business associate the girl can be sure she will not fare well. The most dangerous is a madam who appears to genuinely care for the girl’s welfare. The motherly types are the most brutal.
For once in my life I am lucky. For as much as the rumors spread, for as much as respectable ladies in their boring dresses in boring colors avert their eyes as I pass, as much as the hotel staff whispers and giggles in the hallways, and as many hushed silences as I experience when I enter stores, my biscuits are served warm each morning, my coffee scalding, and my bill, which I pay immediately, is presented each week without a trace of threat about imminent eviction. Fresh soap appears in my bathroom next to a stack of clean towels each afternoon when I return from my walks and shopping expeditions. Someone takes the trouble to clean the hardwood floors, leaving behind traces of lemon scent. My room is aired out in my absence, fresh fruit and flowers arranged on the table, a paper delivered each morning with my breakfast.
While respectable Galvestonians start crossing to the other sidewalk when I pass, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself, as if on vacation on this beautiful island. I discover that I love the beach, its salty smell, its crashing waves, even the occasional wading into the water outfitted in a bathing dress, bathing stockings, and shoes – though I try to avoid too much exposure to the sun as freckles are most unbecoming. Also, I can’t swim. Still, I acquire a glow that makes the careful application of rouge thoroughly redundant. I eat alone and eat lots of shrimp. I shop for new fabrics, then feed my chatty dressmaker and even the attendant of my bathing machine choice morsels of scandal about Le Chabanais.
The bathing machine is a funny contraption, most clever and delightful. It’s like a movable little house in which one changes into one’s bathing suit and other accoutrements in order to go into the water. There is a person inside responsible for transferring the movable house from the beach to the water. The person cannot see me, to preserve my modesty, but after being treated to several stories of Le Chabanais, they take it upon themselves to warn me that should I get funny notions such as bathing in a men’s suit or taking off my shoes, I will be fined by the police.
The dressmaker, a Miss Poole, shows more promise in advancing my agenda and helping me advertise my talents and experience to the local madams. Miss Poole is an expensive dressmaker. I have chosen her because I have it on good authority that she also caters to Mrs. Harden, a local madam I’ve heard promising things about. I saw this Mrs. Harden a few times at Garbade, Eiband & Co. A plump, well-dressed woman with smooth skin that doesn’t show her age, she has the air of a creature enjoying a life of comfort bordering on indolence. Perhaps one can afford to sit around eating confections when one has corralled other girls into doing the actual work of amassing one’s fortune. But I should not be too quick to judge and dismiss Mrs. Harden, as she might hold the key to my own good fortune and my own future of indolence – in which I shall be more mindful not to gorge on bonbons and perhaps learn how to swim, wearing, of course, a proper women’s suit, shoes, and stockings.
Rumor has it Mrs. Harden used to be a prostitute herself before a wealthy patron bought her a house of her own. He tired of her eventually. But she kept the house and hired girls to work for her, in a brothel that rises above the fray for Galveston. Though after walking by once or twice to see it from the outside, I have my doubts it’s as decadent as Madame Rouge’s establishment where I learned the trade. As to Le Chabanais… well, non. There is not bound to be a Moorish salon, a Japanese room, a bathtub full of champagne, or a private bedroom for a European prince in this three-story clapboard house with shady porches and blooming hibiscus in front. It looks almost idyllic.
Still, Mrs. Harden sounds like a prospect. Her girls are rumored to be well-bred and expensive. I’ve seen some of them around town. Her clients are most exclusive, and I was told the girls entertain the men in private dining rooms over a decadent meal before taking them into the bedrooms. That certainly sounds civilized. I decide that Mrs. Harden is worthy of my talents. I must meet her and charm her and secure a place in her house.
But there are mornings when, enthralled with the Island’s beauty and the wholesome joy of walking, reading, and experiencing good food and lovely nature, I wonder if, given unlimited resources, I would still care to be a prostitute at all. I do require entertainment and excitement, but there’s a part of my heart I have never before explored, a part that might be happy with more quiet pleasures. Could I buy a small cottage on this island and live my life in peace? Then I remind myself that I love long walks at sunset and reading books and sipping coffee as long as someone else brings my paper, replenishes my towels, bakes biscuits, and sews dresses for me. Yes, nestled into a life of expensive luxury, I do love taking the time to enjoy simple pleasures and am surprisingly well entertained by them. But waking up in a shabby bed in a shabby room, having to sweep and scrub and brew my own coffee, having to walk to the market and cook my own food, having to mend my dresses when they fall apart, would surely dull the charm of my long walks and would probably diminish my appreciation of sunsets, flowers, and misty mornings.
I tell myself that if I work the few more years my looks will allow, I shall with skill and luck amass enough of a fortune to live for the rest of my life in the way that I’ve been living these past few weeks. And if nobody pursues me over the death of Marie, perhaps I shall even stay on this island. I had considered moving farther West after a few months, changing my name again, but I’m growing fond of this place. There’s something wistful about its salty breezes, its blooming oleanders, its palm trees swaying in the wind. And while I know I cannot afford to be sentimental, and I resolve to rule over my emotions with an iron fist, I also know that this is what I’m saving for.
Once I am thirty, once the first lines start showing on my face, I shall buy a house and employ servants, and I shall allow myself feelings, if not for people, then for animals, for nature, for this beautiful place. For the sea and its energy. If I am still capable of feeling things by then. But surely, whatever I forget, the ocean will help me relearn. At that thought, a tear rolls down my cheek, salty like sea water, and I am shocked, for I have not cried in years, not cried even when I fled New Orleans with fear and regret in my heart.
An unexpected sadness fills me at the thought of leaving my beautiful room, my peaceful life, my tranquil walks. Don’t be silly, I tell myself! You will still have occasional peace! You will still go for walks. But never in the mornings. No, as much freedom and luxury as my life as a prostitute might allow – for I am not one of those unfortunate girls who have to entertain several men a day – I will lose the pleasures of mornings. I will lose the freedom of reading in bed at night. It’s true that I am most fortunate to only entertain one client each evening, and to meet the most interesting men, to be presented to them in the most beautiful silk dresses, to be unwrapped like a present and savored over long hours much like the finest meal. But nights will be long – enjoyable, but long. I shall remain awake, I shall remain engaged and good-humored for as long as the client wishes. And most men can talk into the wee hours. Once they leave me, I shall retire to my own private quarters. I shall hear morning birds as I wash up, and I shall fall exhausted into my own clean sheets. I could not bear to sleep in a bed where I’ve entertained like most girls do. But I will sleep the day away, and only if I’m lucky, after a late afternoon coffee and breakfast, I might have time for a short walk before I’ll need to start my toilette for the evening ahead.
I remind myself that it’s an interesting life. I remind myself there are many joys in it. Dresses and fragrances, flowers from clients and other choice gifts. The money I share with the madam, my own room and bathroom, leisurely baths reading the paper – the only times I get to read as a prostitute, and trust me that reading the paper is essential to carrying on good conversation – the evening’s frivolity, the entertainment in the parlor, the glances of admiration and even envy from other girls and their clients, and then my tête a têtes which often include exquisite meals, interesting gossip, political talk, all spiced with laughter, flirting, and pleasures of the flesh. There is suspense, there can be adventures, for a difficult client is nothing but a challenge, a riddle to solve. I remind myself that my thirtieth birthday will arrive before I tire of it all. But today I can’t convince myself that my life as a prostitute is all that exciting. I wonder if Marie has cursed me. I wonder if I’ve lost my most important talent, the talent for genuinely loving what I do.
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