"There's so much about David and me that's similar," says Arielle Eckstut, 31. "Aside from his time as a prostitute, we easily could have been set up on a date."
Arielle's fiancé, David Sterry, 44, has written a memoir called Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent (ReganBooks), about his seven-month stint as a "chicken," or prostitute, in Los Angeles at the age of 17. He's also a former sex addict and former emcee at Chippendales. He estimates that he's had sex with between 500 and 1,000 women. Arielle is not only David's intended but also his book agent (full disclosure: She works at the literary agency that represents me). Arielle can count on one hand the number of men she's slept with.
I meet the Wilt Chamberlain and Britney Spears of the lit world at Serendipity. They're in town from their home in San Rafael, California, and David suggested Serendipity because in the eighties, during his Chippendales days, he and his co-workers used to come here after their shift.
David has gray, overgrown hair, and Arielle, with her wire-rimmed glasses, is the Nice Jewish Girl you'd want your own son to marry. When I walk in, they're canoodling shamelessly, but, as adorable as they look, I can't help feeling irked. If even a hustler can find connubial bliss, why oh why can't I?
I order a burger, and they get salads and tell me their story. In 1997, David, who was living in L.A., sent his first novel to Arielle, in New York, and she agreed to represent it. In May 1998, he came to town, and they met for the first time. "He Rollerbladed into the office in a vintage soccer jersey and shorts," Arielle recalls. "He was very sexy and very sweaty." But David was engaged to another woman, and Arielle decided there was no chance.
In November, they spoke again; Arielle asked how the wedding was, and he said his fiancée had dumped him (she was playing Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire and had fallen in love with Stanley). Then he came to the city, and they went to lunch. David asked Arielle if she had plans that week, and she said no, although she was booked solid. They went to see A Simple Plan, and afterward she suggested dinner at Patois. "When a woman asks you to a French restaurant after a movie, she's sending you a signal," David says.
After dinner, Arielle invited him to her apartment. They read poetry and talked until four in the morning, but she didn't think he was interested, because he wasn't coming on to her. Finally he said, "There's all this tension in the room," got up, and sat next to her on the couch.
"And she jumped my bones," says David.
At a certain point in the make-out he said, "There will be no penetration this evening," which made Arielle feel safe, and hence more ravenous. (Note to men: If you can convince a girl you're not looking for sex, you are guaranteed to get it.) But once things got frisky, Arielle remembers, "me being the paranoid person that I am, I had to ask about sexual diseases." She asked how many people he had slept with. He said, "I can't even count."
He asked her how many people she had slept with. She said four.
"Have you ever slept with a prostitute?" she asked.
There was a long beat and he said, "I was a prostitute."
"It was so unexpected," Arielle remembers, "but it wasn't like I had just met him in a bar. He was a real person to me, so I just felt sadness. And there was another part of me that always looks for someone on the edge."
David told her his story: how he found himself homeless in Hollywood at 17, was raped by a man he met in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater, and started turning tricks. "I was telling her about these horrific things that had happened to me," he recalls. "But she was amazingly tolerant and accepting." They didn't have sex that night -- David being a man of his word -- but did when they woke up in the morning. "That first date," David says, taking Arielle's hand, "has basically lasted three and a half years."
As Arielle gazes at him lovingly, my envy of their joy morphs into bewilderment. I can't help but wonder whether she feels intimidated in bed. How do you go jogging with your husband if your husband's Carl Lewis?
"At the beginning I felt inadequate," Arielle confesses. "Once, he had left his journal out on my desk, and it said, 'I just met a real sex kitten.' At first I thought, 'That couldn't be me.' But it was!"
"Oh, baby," David clucks.
"Do you feel pressure to go to the nines every night?" I ask him.
"I practice a kind of Zen detachment from sexuality in the best sense," he says. "If I find myself thinking I have to be a sex machine, I change the record in my head."
"David has seen everything," Arielle adds, "so I never have to worry whether he'll think I'm weird if I want X or say Y. There were things that freaked me out -- I was worried about getting AIDS. We went for tests so far into our relationship it was ridiculous. And yet the fact that David had this experience that I had none of made it a gift to be with him."
"A mitzvah, we like to call it," David mock-intones.
"What do your parents think of him?" I ask Arielle.
"David is not what my parents expected as my partner," Arielle says, "but they had a hard time picturing me with anyone, because I was their only child. I lived a very sheltered life -- Fieldston, University of Chicago -- but David went to boarding school and Reed College. He's enough the same and enough different that I was able to open up my world in a way that I never would have been able to otherwise. And for David, the Jewish over-nurturing I give was something he needed."
"Arielle has real challenges with attachment and I have real challenges with detachment," David pipes in. "So we kind of meet in the middle."
Detachment, attachment -- it all sounds so coupley and normal. Except for that one thing. "Do you ever look at David," I ask Arielle, "and just think to yourself: My future husband is a former gigolo?"
"I prefer the term industrial sex technician," David interrupts. "Depending on my mood I use that, or skanky ho." He turns to Arielle with an impish look. "We're both working on embracing our inner skanky hos. Aren't we, honey?"
"Absolutely," she says, grinning.