Thank goodness for name badges. Some of the people looked the same, maybe just a few furrows in the brow or a receding hairline being the difference from their graduation picture. Others, though, weren’t so fortunate and looked as though they had graduated thirty-five years ago instead of twenty. I suppose the changes I saw were standard fare at any class reunion, but I was unprepared for many of them. I mean, really: Troy had been an all-conference gymnast and now look at the paunch on him. And Gerri, my God: every guy’s dream in the class was to get her into the sack. After two decades, she now displayed obvious facial wrinkles and some extra pounds and sure as hell wasn’t the presiding love goddess she used to be. And so it went that first night of our gathering.

I was at the hospitality bar ordering a martini when Gerri wandered over and greeted me with a “Hi there, Tiger!”

“Hi there yourself, Gerri. How long has it been?”

“To the best of my recollection, it was actually the night of our senior graduation party. We started to get cozy with each other but both of us were too drunk to do anything about it.”

I had to laugh at the memory. Gerri had gotten so loaded she couldn’t make it to the bathroom in time and ended up puking all over her new dress and my rental tux: so much for a romantic sexual rendezvous that night.

“Yeah, Gerri, I remember it well. So, what have you been doing with yourself these past twenty years?”

“Well…how much time do you have?”

“Go for it, Gerri.”

She drew in her breath, gave me an enigmatic look, and started her narrative. I was struck by her suddenly solemn look.

“After graduating, I traveled and worked in retail for a while, but then I decided to get serious about a career and applied to the MBA program at UCLA. It was there I met my first husband, Jake, a real hunk of a guy with brains to boot. I soon moved into his condo in Santa Monica and we formalized things by getting married shortly after finishing our degrees.”

She grew pensive. “Things were going really well. Jake had been an investment banker before returning to school and had saved a lot of money, so we had a pretty luxurious lifestyle for a couple of graduate students. After his MBA, Jake went out on his own as an independent financial advisor. It meant long, often erratic evening hours, but the job I had gotten with a management consulting firm kept me really busy, so I wasn’t too bothered by his schedule, and the money was really rolling in. We traveled, bought upscale luxury cars, ate at fine restaurants, and generally lived the good life.”

Gerri paused, inhaled and let it out. “One day, not quite two years after he started working, that good life came crashing to an end. About five o’clock on a Thursday morning in April, the doorbell rang. I threw on my robe, opened the door, and was greeted by two men and a woman with DEA emblazoned on their shirts. They quickly displayed their badges and search warrant and rushed directly into our bedroom. The next thing I knew, the agents came back with a handcuffed Jake in tow. One of the agents read him his rights, then drove off with him in their vehicle.”

About this time, Gerri asked me if I would get her a vodka and tonic from the bar. The bubbliness of her initial greeting to me earlier was no longer there. When I came back with the drink, she resumed her story.

“The next year was a living hell. It seems that Jake had been getting all his money not from his private financial work but from some big-time drug dealing. He wasn’t a petty street dealer, either. He had put the organizational skills from his MBA to good use and developed an extensive network of dealers to work for him. The feds had him under surveillance for some time and ended up with pretty much an open-and-shut case against him. He was tried, found guilty on multiple counts, and sent up to the federal penitentiary in Lompoc for an eight-year term.”

She scrunched up her face and started getting teary-eyed. The fine lines around her eyes somehow seemed more prominent. “The worst part for me was this hard-ass, over-zealous assistant D.A. who would not believe that I wasn’t involved with Jake in his drug dealing. He hounded my friends, neighbors, relatives, just about anyone in an effort to build a case against me. Jake had left a lot of evidence around the condo that could easily have been attributed to me.

“I hired a lawyer who told me the only way I was going to get out from under this thing was to strike a plea bargain, even if I were completely innocent. I capitulated and, as part of the deal the lawyer worked out for me, ended up in the women’s state prison in central California—Chowchilla—instead of a federal penitentiary. I got a one-year term, as an accessory. Eventually, they cut four months off my time for good behavior.”

Then Gerri paused for a moment and looked me straight in the eye, seemingly pondering whether to continue. She took in another deep breath and let it out, flipped her blonde tresses and proceeded with her story.

“Those eight months in the Chowchilla prison were the worst eight months of my entire life. Right from the start, it was apparent that female inmates like me had zero rights—zilch—and simple survival was the name of the game. Within twenty-four hours of arriving there, a prison guard did a strip search on me, supposedly to find concealed drugs. I knew she wasn’t looking for drugs when her fingers wiggled all the way up a body cavity.”

Gerri choked up, and I could see she was struggling with herself.

“After that, it was forced sex almost weekly with either guards or other female prisoners. With no men available, attractive white females were at a premium and were traded around like baseball cards. A prisoner named Laila took a liking to my ‘white ass’ and actually protected me on more than one occasion. But the price for her protection was that she got first dibs on me. Strangely, hers were the only sexual encounters where there was even a smidgeon of warmth and affection. With all the others it was just raw, unremitting sex.

“Then there were the work details assigned to me. The powers that be seemed to take special delight in giving me the dirtiest, the most degrading, the most back-breaking jobs in the prison. They got a lot of pleasure from humiliating attractive white females, pure and simple. By the end of my time there, my nails were long gone and I had calluses and injury marks all over my hands and legs from the work I had to do.”

Gerri made no effort now to hold back her tears, and her makeup and mascara were a mess. She excused herself to go to the women’s room so she could fix her face. I told her I would get us another round of drinks while she was gone. When I came back to our table, she was waiting for me and seemed to have regained some of her composure. She resumed her story.

“When I finished my sentence at Chowchilla, it wasn’t as though everything was

happy-happy again. I had to get divorce proceedings going against Jake, I had to get work to support myself, and I had to find a place to live. Fortunately, the divorce went fairly quickly and I got Jake’s condo as part of our settlement. I lived in a cheap motel on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles until I could move into the condo. It was in a pretty sleazy neighborhood and the traffic noise was terrible, but at least I had a warm bed and privacy.”

Gerri suddenly stood up and smoothed her dress around her thighs. I had no idea what that was all about. Her garb seemed perfectly fine to me, but maybe it was a nervous gesture. She went on.

“The real challenge in all this was finding work. Notwithstanding my MBA and consulting experience, I was seen as damaged goods by prospective employers. Many of the firms that interviewed me had rigid policies against hiring ‘ex-cons,’ especially for their professional and managerial jobs. My conviction was a misdemeanor, but it might as well have been a felony.

“So, after more than a year of online job searching, networking and beating the pavement, I decided to go out on my own. But I also concluded it would be hopeless to try consulting independently. I knew I’d just end up with the same problems I would have had as an employee of a consulting firm.”

It was the dinner hour and I was getting hungry, but I didn’t feel like going through the buffet dinner line with Gerri and sitting at a table with a bunch of the other alums. There was no way she would be able to continue her story in that setting.

“Gerri, how about if we duck out and have dinner in the hotel restaurant? It’s on me.”

“Sure, I’d like that.” She sounded grateful, I supposed as much for the respite as the meal.

When we got into the restaurant, both of us declined the waiter’s offer to bring us drinks. I think we were feeling the effects of the cocktails from the hospitality bar. We ordered our meal from the dinner menu along with two glasses of wine to have with our food. Then, Gerri continued with her tale.

“I concluded the best thing to do was to produce and market a product and forget about selling personal consulting services. That somehow made it easy for me. I took a page out of Mrs. Fields and started a franchise operation called Gerri’s Gelatos. It was hokey, but, you know what, it really worked!”

I acknowledged a smile and wave from one of the reunion organizers heading toward the restroom but kept my attention on Gerri. She continued.

“Of course, I needed seed money to get the enterprise off the ground and I was lucky there, or so I thought. Sam Powell, a venture capitalist I had met during my management consulting job, took an interest in the project—and, as it later turned out, in me—and ended up bankrolling it. It took a year to get everything set up properly, but after just twelve months of operation, I had eighteen separate franchises going and was turning a very nice profit.

“Sam and I met regularly. At first, it was strictly business, but pretty soon it became obvious that he had a romantic interest in me. He wasn’t the hunk that Jake had been, but he had a nice personality, dressed well, and treated me with respect. I really needed to feel worthwhile after Chowchilla. Things moved quickly and we were wed inside of a year.”

I had expected Gerri’s narrative to turn sunny at this juncture but, instead, her face darkened as the tears welled up again and rolled down her cheeks.

“I was so happy at first. The horrible experience with Jake and my prison time at Chowchilla had almost become distant memories. But, strangely, Sam changed. At first it was just kinky stuff in the bedroom, which I attributed to his turning forty. Then, he suggested we have threesomes: not two females and a male, but another guy joining him with me. I refused and begged him not to force it on me. But I was in a no-win situation because if I didn’t go along with it, he made it clear he was going to bail on me and take his money out of my franchise operation. So, I gave in.”

Gerri was sobbing and her shoulders were visibly shaking. I moved over in the booth and tried to console her by putting my arm around her. I was surprised at the emerging tenderness I felt for her. Paradoxically, I was also ashamed of the doubts that had crept into a small corner of my mind about her tales of woe with Jake and Sam, but I’ve always had a soft spot for “damsels in distress” and quickly dismissed them.

“Gerri, you don’t need to continue with this.”

“No, I want to. You’re the only person I’ve talked to about it and, in the end, I think it can help me purge these awful feelings.

“At first, it was just three-way sex, which was bad enough, but it soon turned into three-way sex on videos. The next thing I knew, those videos were appearing on a bunch of Internet porn sites, which, by the way, was a parole violation for me. That was it. I just had to get out.

“I called the lawyer who had worked out my plea bargain on the drug charges, and he contacted the state attorney general’s office to file sex trafficking and extortion charges against Sam. It went pretty quickly after that. Sam was sentenced to prison but was out on bail for several months pending his appeal. I had to sell my business to a Denver hedge fund operator for nickels on the dollar, but I didn’t give anything back to Sam since we never had a formalized business deal. I figured I didn’t owe him a penny after what he had put me through. Needless to say, we’re divorced.”

At this point, we were in the midst of our main course and sipping our wine. I felt strangely drawn to Gerri during that moment but couldn’t quite figure out why. Some of it was undoubtedly from sheer sympathy for her plight and the debasement she had undergone. But some of it—and I’m ashamed to say it—was sexual. The former beauty queen performing in threesomes on raw sex videos excited my imagination in a strangely perverse way.

I asked her what had transpired since that traumatic period in her life. “Believe it or not, my run of bad luck with men continued. I hooked up with this guy—I’m not even going to bother giving you his name—about ten months ago. I was lonely and depressed and hadn’t been with anyone in a long time. He seemed like an ideal partner to me. Both of us previously had bad marriages, so neither of us was interested in that prospect. He moved into my condo, which seemed perfectly natural at the time but turned out to be a big mistake.”

“Why do you say that, Gerri?”

“Well, it seems he was ‘between jobs,’ so I ended up helping him out with money to pay his expenses. But, then, my financial support seemed to get under his skin and anger him. He would sometimes explode with rage and get physically abusive, even hitting me. Then, one night, he went berserk, actually beating me and tying me up with rope.

“I wasn’t going to wait to see if things would somehow turn around. I had the lawyer get a restraining order against him prohibiting him from contacting me or entering my condo. By then, of course, I was almost broke, not in small part due to the financial support I had given him. I couldn’t even get unemployment insurance because I had been self-employed as the owner of Gerri’s Gelatos. I had to go back to retail as a part-time sales clerk and still wasn’t able to cover all my basic living expenses.”

Gerri was a wreck now. Her makeup was smudged beyond repair from her tears and her body language showed her defeat. I think of myself as a pretty tough and unsentimental guy, but her tale had gotten to me. I reached over and took her hand. I felt her pain, but didn’t know how to express the feeling in that moment: still, I tried in what felt to me like a clumsy gesture.

“I’m so sorry, Gerri. I had no idea of the hell you have gone through over these years.”

She dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex and returned the squeeze I had given her hand. I felt I had to do something—anything—to help improve her miserable lot in life.

“Gerri, don’t take this the wrong way, but could I help you out with your finances until you get back on your feet? I’m well fixed in the money department and would feel a lot better spending it on you than most of the other things on my list.”

She didn’t reply, then after a pause, asked in almost a little-girl voice, “Can I spend the night with you in your hotel room tonight? I’m feeling terribly fragile and alone.”

We left the hotel restaurant and went upstairs to my room. The preliminaries at first felt awkward and pedestrian. Maybe this was because both of us were on the other side of forty and our declining hormones could no longer summon up the passions of younger people. I also viewed Gerri initially as a pity-fuck, which certainly didn’t do much to stimulate arousal in me. But as we proceeded with our opening sexual tête-á-tête, I realized my feelings for her went well beyond pity. There could be no doubt about the warmth, tenderness and, yes, developing passion I felt.

Still, I had a hard time figuring out Gerri’s reactions. She seemed tender and somewhat responsive on the one hand, but almost withdrawn and distracted on the other. Despite her enigmatic response, I found our lovemaking to be fulfilling. I went to sleep that night feeling emotionally uplifted and happy.

The next morning, I let Gerri use the bathroom first.  After she had gotten dressed and ready, I went in to shave and brush my teeth. We were going to have an early morning breakfast, at which time I planned to talk to her about both the financial help I had promised and where she saw our personal relationship going.

As I was shaving, I heard a knock on the door. I assumed it was housekeeping.

“Gerri, will you get the door? If it’s housekeeping, tell them to do the room later.”

Suddenly, I heard a commotion with raised voices and went out to investigate. A man and a woman in business attire stood next to Gerri, who had been handcuffed. I was both angry and dumbfounded. What in the hell was going on? Hadn’t Gerri been through enough?

The man flashed his badge, read Gerri her Miranda rights, and the female agent then escorted her outside. The man turned to me.

“Consider yourself fortunate that we caught up to Gerri before she fleeced you like she has done to so many other unsuspecting men before you. She runs one of the smoothest cons that we’ve seen in many years. She finds a mark with money and proceeds to worm herself into his confidence, usually including a sob story about how men have abused or taken advantage of her. Once she has reeled in her prey, she goes to work on him. Sometimes it’s blackmail, other times it’s outright extortion. In some cases, she has arranged the fraudulent transfer of assets via wire to her Cayman Islands account.”

He continued. “I know one of her stories is about serving time in Chowchilla, but she actually was in the women’s federal prison in Dublin up in northern California during that time. Besides her con racket, she is also a parole violator. We’ve been tracking her for a while now, which is how we knew where to find her today at your class reunion function.”

I thanked him, then went outside. Gerri, still handcuffed and seated in the back of an unmarked sedan with the female agent, looked out and gave me a wan smile. I went over to the vehicle and gestured to the agent to lower the window so I could talk to Gerri. I struggled with myself. My gut was churning and felt raw…I had to let it out.

“Don’t worry, Gerri. You’re not going to fight this one by yourself. I’m going to get you the best legal defense my money can buy.”