"Smoke City" Michael Chin
Madeleine cradled my ankles in her arm pits, my body bent into a crescent, legs long and oiled, feet bare in the customs of Smoke City Wrestling. I moaned the way she’d told me to backstage. A sound of pain that could as easily be mistaken for a sex noise, because that’s what the men had come to hear.
I understood in that moment how wrestling might be sexy. The two of us wore booty shorts and sports bras, skin shining, athletic bodies pushing and pulling against one another.
My left ankle slipped loose My leg crashed to the mat. The hold hadn’t hurt, but the fall did a little.
Madeleine crouched into a half crab, some semblance of a grappling transition, like I’d fought partially free but she nonetheless still had me, all the while positioning my body to be more comfortable, less prone to actually getting hurt.
Madeleine was a safe worker. She’d been wrestling in Smoke City for five years and prided herself on knowing this variation on professional wrestling as well as anyone.
We sold sex to the men who drove in to Smoke City—a casino town—for card games and booze and to see what other trouble they might get into over long weekends. I came to the territory on the premise of good pay days, no travel, little of the wear and tear that comes with full-impact wrestling matches. Other girls reassured me if I could check my dignity at the door, it was a good place to cool my jets for a year or two and pad my bank account, add years to my career from giving my back a break from power bombs and spine busters in favor of sexy looking holds.
My first night in, I wasn’t so sure.
I won, but it didn’t mean anything—even less than the typically predetermined outcome of a professional wrestling match. Madeleine had been up front that most of us would take turns winning and losing, and the only exceptions were the girls with resting bitch face who worked better in dominating roles and girls like Lucy—a real girl-next-door type who sold better than anyone, so men would clamor to hear her whimpers escalate over the course of a match until the climax, screaming her submission.
I picked up the duke with a figure four leg lock that saw Madeleine shriek and stretch out her long neck in a way that drew a roar from the crowd. She ravaged fistfuls of hair and cast her tearful desperation at one man in the front row before screaming, “I give up! Please stop hurting me!”
I didn’t love that type of submission—the kind reserved for only the most cowardly jobber in most wrestling territories. I’d learn that was the nature of Smoke City Wrestling for the loser to be rendered a trembling, inconsolable mess whom the men in the crowd might fantasize about massaging the sore body of. I didn’t love what I had to do either, standing over her body, biceps flexed, a foot on her heaving bosom. They called it a victory pose, inviting flash photographs.
“Isn’t it all kind of voyeuristic?” I asked Madeleine in the locker room.
She smirked. “It’s wrestling.”
I’d shared a locker room with Dragon Princess when she’d talked about how it was a nobler pursuit to use physicality to entertain the masses by pretending to hurt someone rather than really hurting someone. I’d heard Pit Bull Peters talk about offering entertainment that transcended language—a narrative men like his Polish immigrant father could understand fresh off the boat, before he picked up the English language. I, myself, had mused wrestling storytelling might help us all better understand the human condition.
Madeleine was less idealistic than all that. Pragmatic. She’d come to Smoke City as a trapeze artist, performing in a niche circus show at one of the casinos until a torn rotator cuff and resulting complications meant she couldn’t perform safely anymore. She was in the habit of eating well and maintaining the musculature necessary to swing across high beams, and parlayed all of that to her wrestling career, such as it was—safer in this world of make-believe combat. “Men came to see the circus to stare at our bodies, too,” she said. “When we wrestle, we don’t bother pretending they’re here to see anything else.”
The men came to us for a novelty, maybe a fetish, a step removed from the burlesque shows or strip clubs all over Smoke City. But for some men, watching wasn’t enough. Some men wanted in on the action.
In the locker room shower, Madeleine explained, “Sessions are where the really money is at here.” She said men booked private sessions in casino hotel rooms to stage matches of their own with girls from Smoke City Wrestling. Some came with elaborate scripts and scenarios. The girl was a petty thief caught stealing in the room, and needed some discipline. Or she was a government interrogator, the guy a terrorist she set to squeeze between her thighs until he confessed his secrets. A lot of men didn’t want such pretense at all, though. They wanted to wrestle a pretty girl who knew how to apply holds and who wouldn’t make him feel weird about it. So, they’d wrestle, nothing predetermined or planned besides some agreement about going half speed or to not mess with a guy’s trick knee.
“Most guys who go in for this sort of thing are the submissive type,” Madeleine said. “And we can ask for a premium rate for the ones who aren’t. You always want another girl in the room for those ones. I bring an escort regardless—a lot of the girls do if it’s not a regular customer. Nico works out all the particulars with the client, and all the money stuff. Most of us don’t communicate with the client until we’re in the room, unless you’re like Lucy.”
I learned that, in contrast to the helpless victim she’d play for the arena crowds, Lucy had a reputation for taking an active role in her bookings—messaging with clients about wardrobe choices and favorite holds and other nuances of sessions for days leading up to a meet up.
I told Madeleine I’d come to Smoke City to be a wrestler, not a prostitute.
Madeleine laughed and made the obvious joke that there wasn’t much difference, but when I didn’t laugh in return she clarified that there was no sex. “I’m not going to say no girl has ever gone into business for herself and worked out something in the room, but it’s not the standard. I’ve never done it. Nico’s good about protecting us on that—making it explicit that prostitution is illegal and that’s not what we’re selling.”
I hadn’t interacted much with Nico yet. He was one of the management guys, who came across as something like a gopher, running a new microphone out to the ring when the one the ring announcer was using died during the show, and updating me and Madeleine when they mixed up the order of the matches and we wound up going on earlier. I could see a guy like that running in between girls and clients, too, though.
Calm and practical, equal parts setting customers straight that wrestling didn’t entitle them to anything they might want, and reassuring them, too, that they really weren’t getting into anything illegal.
“Sometimes a guy will get too excited and cream himself,” Madeleine said. “It’s an occupational hazard. And, if you want, it’s grounds to call the session then and there, no refunds.”
I asked around. When you bounce between territories you learn quickly that you can’t trust what everyone says. Wrestlers are liars with their own self interests at stake, sure, but also, everyone sees the world differently, and especially if you get paid to get hit in the head night in and night out, there’s every possibility you’re not taking in the world through the clearest eyes.
Maybe Madeleine and Lucy worked sessions, but that didn’t have to mean it was the norm. Maybe they had a reputation as whores or for lusting after money to the extent they’d do anything.
But then Nico invited me out for a bite after the show. His treat.
We ate at Cardiac’s, a hospital-themed burger joint a few doors down from the casino where I wrestled and stayed. The place served quarter-pound, half-pound, and full-pound patties, besides The Coronary Embolism, featuring two one-pound patties stacked one atop the other, dressed up with a dozen strips of bacon. An advertisement by the door proclaimed that customers ate free and got their names on a plaque if they finished that one. Cardiac’s other central gimmick was that anybody who didn’t clean his plate got a wooden-paddle spanking from his waitress. As we came in, one of those waitresses—in a grease-stained nurse’s uniform with a low cut top, a short skirt—thwacked away at a gleeful middle-aged customer I could only assume didn’t finish his dinner on purpose.
I ordered a water and a quarter-pound burger with no bun. Nico was confident enough to get himself a half-pounder and a strawberry milkshake.
He gave a Cliff Notes version of what Madeleine had said about session wrestling. More brass tacks about how the going rate for most girls was a hundred dollars per half hour, and the rate doubled for sessions over an hour long. The girls kicked back twenty-five percent of the take to Smoke City Wrestling for facilitating the arrangements, twenty dollars an hour to Nico if we wanted him to sit in the room for safety purposes, or to film (at an extra hundred dollars an hour at the customer’s expense). He conceded that most of the girls provided each other’s backup or camera services and worked out for themselves what money would change hands or if they’d simply owe one another favors.
Nico went over all of this and told me that I had my first request. “Not one of the regulars. A tourist. He saw you tonight and he wants to meet up Saturday in his room if you’re up for it.”
Nico came across less like a pimp than an accountant, or the kind of attorney who didn’t go up in front of court rooms, but rather pored over tax law and advised client whether to pay or plea or fight or get ready for jail time.
Case in point, he told me if I didn’t want to work a session, I didn’t have to. “I know this is different from what you’re used to. You’re a serious wrestler. I saw your work from Damphry and I pushed to sign you. We need more women who can actually wrestle here in Smoke City to keep the rest of them safe.”
I hadn’t realized that anyone affiliated with Smoke City watched any other wrestling, besides looking for pretty girls with a cursory bonus if they knew a short arm scissors from a headlock.
The food arrived, mine a slab of greasy meat I wasn’t shy about tearing into with my fingers.
Nico cut through his bun, through his burger, through all the fixings with a knife and fork, keeping his hands clean. “I’m grateful you’d come to work with us at all, so don’t feel like you have to do something you aren’t comfortable with. You probably do want to consider sessions, though. You’ll wind up making a lot more money here than Damphry if you do.” Nico paused to squeeze and jostle the plastic ketchup bottle.
Nothing came. “Where’s that waitress?”