If, before the pandemic, she could count the Moldovan clients on her fingers, it has been almost one year since she has been counting her foreign clients on her fingers. „It’s hard. Foreigners no longer come to Moldova. There are only those who work here, on roads. Luckily, I have five or six permanent clients but that’s not enough. COVID has shit me up to my neck.”
The sun falls on the horizon, hiding behind the purple hills. In a slum on the outskirts of a city in the north of the country, dogs bark like mad at the cat passing in front of the metal gates. Her name is Dymka. She undulates her fluffy hips with astonishing nonchalance and enters a weed-infested yard. With light movements, as if performing a ballet adagio, she slips under the cracked walls of a house, trying to avoid the sludge in the yard, up to a hut in the back. Then she shakes her paws and crouches down by a metal door, waiting for someone to open it. The light barely penetrates the elbow-sized windows of the adobe hut.
Dog Ciuciu is scratching in the cage opposite. He’s totally disinterested in the grey cat. With the tip of his white tail he guards the large beef hock he has dragged inside, onto the pieces of cloth that keep him warm in winter. All around, dirt like in a dumpster that hasn’t been visited by garbage collectors in weeks.
When, at last, the metal door, which is barely held in place, opens, the cat bursts into the house, like frenzied. A 19-year-old girl, dressed in grey wool pyjamas, comes out like a bullet. She plunges her bare feet into a pair of galoshes and runs through the mud to the peaks full of washed laundry. She grabs a black T-shirt with long sleeves and holds it to her chest.
– Shit! It’s still wet! And cold! Maríe notices, shivering from the cold.
With her galoshes stuck in the mud, she looks back and forth between her feet and the door. She measures with her eyes the distance of a few meters, then strains like a gymnast, takes off and salts. In two steps, she reaches the doorstep, opens the door and moves away the few fluffy blankets she has coated the entrance with. Maríe has fixed them to the wall with large, rusty nails, believing that was the only way she could keep the little bit of warmth in her hut.
„This house is getting cold very quickly. I don’t know what else to do,” she says, gnashing her teeth and slamming the door behind her.
The dwelling, big as a box of matches, is a room separated in the middle by a brown stove, in which a few fence rods roar. The hob circles are missing, so the fire sticks out its tongues. The floor, made of planks, in some places ragged, reveals the yellow clay underneath, and no sign of carpets.
A table and a stove improvise a kitchen in the first part of the room. The bedroom, with a ruffled sofa and a crib standing on a reel, hides behind the stove in the second part. Various small things, such as combs, mascara, teaspoons, and cables are stuffed on the two windowsills. Four odours prevail everywhere: cigarette smoke, stove smoke, faeces and urine.
Cat Dymka is sitting on the couch, on some clothes lying
topsy-turvy. Only there does she feel safe. If outside she can sneak past Ciuciu’s cage and get off scot-free, in the house, she can’t fight Maríe’s two little girls anymore.
The youngest is called Ana. She is 15 months old, a chubby girl with a round dirty face. She sits next to the sofa, holding the tassels of a slimy blanket with her hands, and looks gently at Lenuța, her two-year-old sister who is struggling to gather some biscuits scattered all over the bed.
At one point, Ana begins to whimper, rattling from her chubby thighs hidden under a pair of ragged pink pants. Lenuța looks at her from under her eyelashes but doesn’t lift her chin from her chest. She further struggles to collect the biscuits. Ana begins to cry spasmodically. Marie, talking excitedly on the phone, shouts angrily at Lenuta from the kitchen:
– Hey, you, play with your sister, or I’ll come and do something to you!
Lenuța looks hostilely at her younger sister’s discouraged face. She gets out of bed, swallowing knots. She has no pants or panties on. Just a greasy sweater. She walks barefoot on the ice-cold floor and pulls a large blue rabbit from behind the couch, dressed in a red vest. She grabs it firmly by the ears and hands it to Ana.
– Here, take it, and shut up already! Lenuța replies hostilely, getting on the bed and resuming the hunt for biscuits tucked under the pillows and blanket.
The plush toy, however, doesn’t please Ana. With snots already entering her mouth, she continues to cry violently and looks lustfully at the cakes that fall, one by one, either into a plastic plate or into older sister’s mouth.
Maríe can’t stand it anymore. Without interrupting her phone conversation, she enters the small bedroom, snatches the plate of biscuits from Lenuta’s ragged hands, hands it to Ana, and retreats to the kitchen, chatting ardently.
With wet streaks on her puffy cheeks, Ana begins to devour the letter-shaped cakes. She sends friendly smiles to her older sister, who, however, responds with frowning eyebrows and clenched jaws.
On the other side of the stove, the young mother is caught in a long discussion she has to end „successfully.” Abdul, a Turkish citizen who has lived in Moldova for several months, has been trying for a few days to convince Maríe that he is ready to do anything for her, only to become her boyfriend. They met on a site that focuses mainly on socializing, flirting and sex.
„Krasavița (Beautiful – from Russian), I likes you.” „You want be mine?” „You very beautiful!”
With pursed lips and dilated nostrils, Maríe listens intently to the compliments flowing endlessly from the man but doesn’t let herself be flattered. She doesn’t want a courtesy relationship with Abdul. The cold in the house and the fact that she hasn’t fed her children yet, even though it’s evening, makes her answer evasively, growling, whining, pretending that she doesn’t really understand what he wants from her.
– Ah, yes, of course. Oh, hell, my phone is broken and I can’t even see what you’re writing or what pictures you’re sending me, the young woman replies implicitly.
– You want me pay you? You want me give you money? the Turk asks nervously.
Maríe smiles broadly. Her fleshy, red lips, bitten to blood, part. She doesn’t say yes or no. She doesn’t want to give herself away „right from the start”, but she doesn’t want to lose the Turk’s money either. Therefore, she dawdles and plays some more, and reminds him she has two children and a broken phone. In the end, after the man agrees to repair the mobile phone that her children threw on the ground because she did not let them watch cartoons on it, Maríe sighs forcefully and agrees to see him in 15 minutes.
Zinca, her friend, who had come in the meantime, congratulates her with her eyes. They both take out a cigarette and, triumphantly, puff next to the hob without hoops, frothing in the fire. The house fills with smoke.
Ana and Lenuța are tired of eating biscuits and want to play. They peer at their mother from behind the stove. Maríe catches them and makes a roar:
– March onto the bed and stay there, because it’s even colder here.
The girls skedaddle, and Maríe agrees with Zinca to babysit them until she returns from her date. She pulls her hair into a bun and puts on her black T-shirt. You wouldn’t even say she’s 19 and has two children. She is beautiful, with an olive complexion and mesmerizing green snake-like eyes. Only her gawky walk, thick thighs and beer belly betray that she has lost some of her fragility.
– Oh, this belly so gives me a complex, she says through gritted teeth as she pulls the zipper of her black jeans worn between her legs.
She puts on a short maroon coat, stained on the back, and a pair of boots torn in the snout, which reveals her green socks.
– Am I pretty? she asks her children.
The two girls look at her in pain. Ana starts whining and pulls out her hands to her mother. Maríe takes her in her arms. She tells her that she won’t be gone for long and that ‘everything will be fine’. She kisses her on the nose and puts her down on the couch, next to Lenuța. Then she nods to her friend and reminds her she wouldn’t be long – „One hour sharp” – and rushes through the door, getting lost in the streets of the slum shrouded in the black shawl of the early night.
„My clients are foreigners,” Maríe said proudly in October 2020, when we first met in a cafe. „Arabs, Turks, French or Africans,” she lists their origins. She made a rule out of that. „Most often I choose men from abroad. First, they know how to keep their mouths shut. I don’t need my children to be pointed at when they grow up,” the 19-year-old woman explains.
However, she admits it is not a nailed rule and that „sometimes it happens that I have sex with ours, Moldovans,” only that they also have to meet a condition. „Be married. All of them. Some are awaited at home by their children. I need assurance, but also the guarantee that they are not ill. For example, there is a small businessman among the Moldovans. He will be afraid to tell anyone about me, because the whole business belongs to his wife. He will simply be thrown out of there,” she explains somewhat amused.
If, until the pandemic, she could count the Moldovan clients on her fingers, it has been almost one year since she has been counting her foreign clients on her fingers. „It’s hard. Foreigners no longer come to Moldova. There are only those who work here, on roads. Luckily, I have five or six permanent clients but that’s not enough. COVID has shit me up to my neck.”
That’s because her monthly income of up to 10,000 lei suddenly dropped to 2,000. „God, they’re so stingy! It’s something terrible,” she moans. Especially that the pandemic “has not cancelled the expenses. I have to pay the house rent, which costs me 2,000 lei. I need wood money and I don’t have it. I don’t have money for milk powder either. It’s never been so hard for me that I would run out of products. I’ve been giving the kids porridge for a few days. I can’t buy them at least a sausage or a chocolate,” Maríe explains.
Because of this, last fall, she had a ‘sex for food’ bargain with a stranger for the first time. She knew the guy would thus spend more than the 400 lei he would pay for an intercourse. She went with him to a supermarket and asked him to fill her basket as she had two small children at home and had nothing to put on the table for them. „For those five minutes, because I can’t say it otherwise, the poor man spent pretty well. I took everything I wanted except pork. He forbade me to take pork.”
Until she reached that bargain, she had pawned everything she had in the house: appliances, jewellery. She also wanted to pledge her mobile phone but they did not accept it because of its cracked screen. „I really don’t know what to do anymore. Fuck this damn life, she says through her gritted teeth, peering at the cafe floor.
Her debts at the slum store have also increased. If the monthly sums in the seller’s notebook amounted to several hundred lei, with the pandemic, they have reached several thousand lei. „You know, I started having bad headaches. I feel the veins throbbing in the back of my head. I’m in a continuous worry. This pandemic has fucked me to death.”
She would take Lenuța to kindergarten so that „at least one of them would have something more to eat” and, in this way, it would have been easier with Ana at home, „but it’s the pandemic and they don’t accept the little ones.”
Left alone in front of COVID and of the two children maintenance, Maríe has changed the rule of the game. „I started dating Moldovans. What should I do if the coronavirus has blown away my clients? Fuck it! I have to do something.”
Estimated number of commercial sex workers in the Republic of Moldova
In Moldova, the practice of prostitution is sanctioned by a fine of 1,800 to 2,400 lei. Maríe knows this very well but she brags that she has never had any problems with the police. „I do everything with my head,” she says.
Nobody knows she is a prostitute. Only the clients and Zinca, who is also from the field. She first meets her clients virtually, on a social network. „Everything happens anonymously. I don’t have a real name. Not even the pictures on my profile are mine. The pictures are somebody else’s. They see my face only when we meet,” the young woman laughs victoriously.
After meeting them „as ladies do,” the proposal to meet in the flesh comes in a few days or even hours. It all starts with a cup of coffee or tea. The date ends with, „Let’s go to a hotel or somewhere else.” Then I ask, „Why should we go?” „Because I want you.” „If you want me, pay for it. I must pay for the nanny’s services, I have to get mascara, I have to buy one thing or another. Do you think you are so handsome that I’m ready to run to the hotel with you?” That makes them mad and upsets them and they are willing to pay as much as you ask,” she recounts, resuming the biting of her nails covered with brown nail polish and sprinkled with a row of glitter on the edge.
Maríe also pedals a lot on the fact that she is young. „Now you don’t find young women like that – „If you want, go and have it with the grannies” but they don’t give up on fresh flesh and pay.” In her long experience with men between the ages of 17 and 63, it has never happened to her that someone would come to meet her and, in the end, not offer her sex. „Everyone asks me for this at the first date. All of them!”
Another rule Maríe has set is that she does not spend more than an hour with anyone. If asked, she just laughs in their face, „When you pay for a whole day, then I’ll spend it with you.” There are also those who, after sex, can invite her to the pizzeria. If she has time, she accepts. That’s a source of income, too, she admits. „I also take some of the pizza they buy for me home to my girls. It doesn’t go well down my throat when I know that my hungry children are waiting for me.”
In the ‘good times’ and when she had only one child, she took ‘orders’ non-stop. She did not shy away from any proposal. She also had large expenses: crib, stroller, diapers, milk powder. „When Lenuța was only two months old, I lost my milk. I was working day and night then. If they called me at 6 in the morning, I would go at 6 in the morning. Now I only take orders at night. But I’ve been also taking them during the day for months now. Someone needs to raise my children,” she says as if trying to apologize, snapping her fingers.
Prostitution has not been the only job in her life. At one point, she gave up and got a job as a packer at a bread factory. She would have worked even today if the salary had been at least close to the one she made from providing sex services, and not 3,000 lei, which were barely enough for rent and diapers. „And what should I feed my children?” What should I dress them with?”
Last summer she also tried to be a manicurist. „I’m a quick learner. However, he material and tools are expensive. And who wants to have their nails done in the pandemic?”
In Maríe’s absence, Zinca keeps her nose in the phone, while Lenuța takes care of her younger sister. She tells her about a princess, then chides her to get up from the ground when she falls, gives her another biscuit when she cries and comforts her with words when she keeps calling „Mommy, mommy”. Therefore, when Maríe appears in the doorframe, Ana starts to cry and runs happily towards her, with outstretched hands.
The young woman is a little disappointed with the meeting with Abdul. She would have liked some money, too, but „I took out at least a new phone from the Turk”, which she plans to pawn the very next day. Until then, she hands it to Lenuța. The child squeaks with joy. She sits with her bare bottom on the cold floor and clicks on Youtube for cartoons.
Maríe looks tired at Ana. She has the face of a kitten who has rummaged in the ashes. Only her teeth have remained white. She takes her in her arms, gasping at the child’s weight. “Fuuu! You, little kakașka (little piece of shit – from Russian)!”
While Zinca disappears, Maríe puts Ana on her hip and goes with her to the sofa. She lays her on her back and takes out the full diaper, which she throws into the fire. Ana screams in pain. Her bottom is cherry-red from an irritation that spreads to her thighs, close to the knees. The young woman wipes it with wet wipes, smears it with cream and puts on a clean diaper. Then picks a pair of pink tights and a blue sweater from behind the sofa.
The little girl lets out a moaning pigeon sound – „Gruuuuu”. She looks gently at her mother and syllabifies, „Caca (shit)!” Maríe, who only then seems to have really heard her, looks at her gently, too, „Yes, little kakașka! You have shitted,” she confirms as she rubs the toddler’s face with a clean napkin. The child glitters.
Looking sulky, Lenuta brings her the phone. „Someone’s calling you!” The young woman jumps up and grabs the phone with both hands.
– Hello! Yes! she answers hurriedly, going to the kitchen. Not before she frowns at Lenuța, motioning for her to take care of Ana whom she had left on the bed with Dymka.
For about a week now, Maríe has been trying to haze another Turkish citizen. „Nothing is clear yet. He promises to come on Saturday. I’m trying to get him transfer me something. I explain that I don’t have food in the house. Damn it! Yesterday he promised to come today, the day before yesterday he promised to come yesterday. I really hope he comes tomorrow. Otherwise…”
Maríe began to prostitute herself early. From the times when she was in the orphanage, she claims, where she ended up after her alcoholic parents had been deprived of their parental rights. She was five years old when she joined a ‘new family’, times that she now describes as the most terrible ones in her life. „I was beaten, and the girls would take everything from me.”
„At the boarding school, you wouldn’t simply buy things. You had to get by as you knew best! Therefore, I decided to earn money on my own. I understood that I was succeeding in it. Why not? I could put anyone on their ears,” she recounts with a bitter smile.
She first did it when she was 13, with some coloured men. She had another ‘performance’ then – she stole about 50 euros from their wallets. After that, prostitution and theft went hand in hand for about two years. „I could pilfer their phone, too.” At 15, she ended up with a criminal case and Lenuța in her belly. „It was a narrow escape from prison. They sentenced me to one year with suspension because I was pregnant.”
The woman claims that Lenuța’s father was a colleague from the orphanage, with alcoholic parents as well. „He never knew what I was doing. When I got pregnant, we got married very quickly. I was only 15 and he was 23.”
After the marriage, her husband went to Moscow, „for long money,” and, when coming home, was beating her up. „He would throw an ax at me. He could beat me with the cog. He would lock me in the house. Jealousy? Maybe, but I’m very careful.”
She says that in the last telephone conversation they had he threatened her to come home and ‘smash her in the mouth and file for a divorce’. „He doesn’t believe that [the girls] are his, even if Lenuța is his copy. He also says he won’t raise someone else’s children. Although he still calls the girls when he is drunk, he still communicates with them, but he doesn’t help them,” Maríe says while pointing to the photos lined up on the wall above the sofa. The ten pictures include all the warm memories of her life: the wedding, the birth of the girls, the girls’ birthdays and the Sundays at the pizzeria.
She wanted to be a singer. She even has a singing diploma, from the orphanage, arranged next to the pictures. However, her dream now is to find another husband. One that would ensure a decent living for her children. „Then I would forget about these adventures. If such a man appears, I immediately put an end to everything,” she claims firmly, while holding Lenuța between her legs and rubbing her face intensely with wet towels.
She looks for a pair of tights behind the sofa for her, too, then takes off her greasy sweater with difficulty, replacing it with a clean one. Lenuța only whimpers a little, but when Marie gets the comb into her tangled hair, the room shakes with screams:
– Oh, mom! I don’t want to be combed anymore!
The little one, in turn, trims Dymka. The cat stoically endures every tuft of hair pulled out. She knows that if she scratches Ana, she will get two generous kicks in her back from Maríe. „The teeth. Her teeth are coming out. I rocked her all night. I fell asleep only in the morning,” Maríe whispers tiredly, looking shiftlessly at Ana.
Her only constant source of income is Ana’s allowance – 640 lei. She does not file for social aid for two reasons: first – officially „I’m still married”; the second reason – she fears the authorities will take her children away.
„You see? If they enter this house, they deprive me of my parental rights, as they did in my mother’s case, who did just that – she called for social aid to help her, and instead, they sent me to the orphanage, and I don’t want this. For the time being, my children are the meaning of life for me. Honestly, if I were left without them… Everything that happens to me is stressful. There was a moment when I felt that I was falling down, that I couldn’t take it anymore, that everything inside was hurting. But I understood that if I gave up, I’d hurt them. For this reason, I endure. For their sake. If it weren’t for them, I would have given up a long time ago.”
She is aware that, at her 19, „I have mocked my own life” and would give up this occupation, which makes her feel dirty after every ‘order’. But she continues to take them, she apologizes, “for the girls to have everything, so that I could provide them with everything. I don’t want them to grow up the way I did. That’s the thought that drives me. I know I will handle it. I know I will resist.”
Illustrations – Diana Roșcovan
Editing – Nicolae Cușchevici