Recruited as a sensual-massage therapist by her friend Kara, Crane finds herself in a compromising situation. The allure of easy money has brought her to the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills on Christmas Day for a four-hand massage. The client, a widower with a skin condition who is "covered in tiny scabs," predictably wants sex and is willing to double the fee. Are they interested?
With a quick glance from Kara, Crane bolts to the bathroom for condoms, and then they go to work: "I looked into Kara's blank blue eyes and our tongues met in circles around the latex condom. I tasted the sour plastic of new tires, party balloons, and hospital gloves."
What's remarkable about the scene isn't its lack of eroticism; it's how quickly Crane slides down sex work's slippery slope. All it takes is a glance from Kara for her to go from happy-ending masseuse to prostitute—an ugly word that comes into play only when the police get involved—and I don't think I'm giving much away by revealing that Crane eventually gets booked on pandering charges. Johns generally prefer the term "escort services," burying the word "sex" in the language of commerce that reduces the escorts to "service providers," a class of women defined by the needs of the men they serve.
Crane is having none of that. She embraces the term "sex worker," for it defines the work, and it's often hard work that she performs. When you need your car repaired, you go to a mechanic, not an automotive-services provider. For Crane, stripping, lap dancing, performing in peep shows, screwing on camera or providing sexual services of any kind is sex work. This attentiveness to language makes Spent an intoxicating read.
Crane's memoir is divided into five sections that explore the various ways a beautiful, intelligent girl from a middle-class family in Humboldt, California, can end up a professional sex worker: Bulimia and body-image issues as a young girl. Divorce and reckless drug use during her teenage years. Relationships scarred by drug addiction and sexual trauma. And years of sober stripping that lead to forays into other kinds of employment before being lured back to easy money and transactions that keep getting darker and darker.
Crane is too savvy a writer to suggest there's a causal relationship between her damaged past and reckless decisions. She owns her choices. Spent is neither an explanation nor a mask. Crane is unstintingly frank and often very funny: "She handed me her curly brown wig that smelled like it had been held captive in a bucket of Downy fabric softener since 1985."
While the setting and circumstances are often somewhere between tawdry and lurid, the writing is sharply focused: "A tranny in a wheelchair was bumming change out front while smoking a Pall Mall. 'Nice wig,' she said. I dropped a couple of quarters in her Styrofoam cup. She glared at me. 'You idiot. That's my coffee.'"
Crane doesn't deliver a blow-by-blow account of every phase of her life, sordid or otherwise. For instance, we don't learn about how she came by her elaborate tattoos and are likewise spared the quotidian details of her relationships—romantic or not. In between stripping gigs, she finishes school and gets an MFA. The relationship that frames the narrative is the one she has with her mother and her mother's bile duct cancer, which ultimately proves terminal.
The scenes immediately before her mother's demise, when "[t]he room shrunk with the heat of our bodies waiting for death," are the most harrowing. Because she's always broke, Crane has to hustle for plane fare to visit her dying mother. At the hospital, she's appalled by the poor treatment her mother's receiving and can't escape reminders of the strip club where she works. "The hospital looked shabby and unkempt, and this pissed me off to no end. Her room smelled like Pleasures: bleach and air freshener." As her mother nears the end, Crane makes a shocking decision that left me stunned.
If you're looking for cheap thrills or redemption by reconciliation, you won't find it in Spent; what you will encounter is the brave, bold voice of a writer who refuses to let the emptiness of her past get in the way of living life to the fullest.