True story: I used to work for a phone sex service, back when I was an undergrad at Rutgers. The business was owned by these two guys who looked like the dudes central casting would send over if you asked for asked for two specimens of the species bro heterosexualis. The year being 1995, their marketing strategy consisted of sending flirty messages to lonely men on one of those proto-internet chatrooms, and then casually suggesting they call our 900 line. These words probably make no sense to you if you were born after 1990; just try and roll with it. The way it worked was we ladies got paid by the call, not by the minute. So it made sense to try to get out of these calls as soon as possible, but I always lingered. Just as I was getting ready to hang up, a man would tell me something about himself: that he collected Hummel figurines or raised scorpions, that he played oboe in a jazz band, that he sometimes had that dream where your teeth fall out for no reason. And I would get interested, in spite of myself. I knew I was supposed to be more businesslike, to get them off and then get off the phone, but I needed to ask: Why Hummel figurines? Do you like them because they are creepy or in spite of this fact? If you break one, is it filled with razor blades and human hair?
I found it difficult to stay in character, or at least the character the bros had assigned me. My name, according to my phone-sex profile, was Lola and my hair was long and red (That bit wasn’t too far off, I was indeed wearing it hennaed an implausible shade of red that year). And then, like a baseball card, my stats were listed: 36D-24-36. This, of course, was pure fabrication.
Except for when I was eleven and my bitch of a dance teacher yelled out everyone’s measurements to the costume coordinator, I have always given exactly zero fucks about my numbers, preferring the more subjective measurement of how my jeans fit or whether or not I got the attention I craved on the street. I don’t own a scale, and only bother trying to keep my stomach flattish so it won’t throw too much of a wobble in my handstand. I am flat-chested in the extreme, and have never wanted a pair of rubber tits to call my own. I’m lucky; I’m on good terms with my body these days. But for that one summer in 1995, it was kind of fun to pretend I was lugging around these huge tits. I talked differently when I was pretending to have the tits; I felt differently.
I went to work and put in eight hours of phone sex on my twenty-first birthday, and when I went out with some friends for margaritas that night, it was the one time I didn’t get carded. I drank a single anticlimactic cocktail before passing out from dehydration on the walk to the ladies room. I guess it had been a long hot day of vividly describing imaginary blow-jobs, and I didn’t realize how much it had taken out of me. I fell over, boneless as a sack of flour, taking out a bar-stool, my dress flipping up because even when I’m unconscious, I want to show you my underpants. When I came to, I wasn’t hundred percent sure who I was. The ambulance came, and when they took me out on the gurney I covered my face with the sheet so the people walking by would think they were wheeling out a dead body.
It was that kind of summer; I tried on new identities like hats. “Lola isn’t here,” I would tell some man down the phone line, my voice all husky and twenty-one. I would invent terrible calamities for her; I would be Lola’s sexually precocious little sister, or her lesbian lover, or her black-veiled nemesis. I would tell stories.
The men paid by the call. Sometimes they had to go, and sometimes they would call back. Sometimes I rubbed one out with them for company; maybe this is why my orgasms to this day tend to be on the loud side. Occupational hazard.
The brothers moved their base of operations from their basement in Piscataway to a warehouse space: lots of big rambling empty offices, painted brothel red. Bean-bag chairs. The phones had the extra long cords so you could drag them into an empty room like umbilici. There was a perpetual after office-hours feel that made me think of hide and go seek. One time I wanted to go smoke some pot with one of the bros, uninterrupted by the phone, and so I took the phone off the hook and forgot about it and for the rest of the night we wondered why no calls came in.
Over the course of the next few months, the drugs got harder until I was off the hook myself. Not “off the hook” like the millennial cliché, off the hook like in the movies where the receiver is on the floor and there’s blood and you can tell that a struggle happened here. I picked up heroin, and it was like I had kidnapped myself, leaving a badly spelled note patched together out of letters from the newspaper: GiV me YR DruGs or tHE girl DIEs. But no one paid my ransom, so I quit the phone sex place and waited for people to stop bothering me. I couldn’t bring myself to answer a phone, any phone, anymore, discovering that I deeply and profoundly did not want to talk to another person. For most of my twenties, I didn’t have a phone number you could reach me at; I used someone else’s landline or a bar payphone. I called my parents collect to let them know I was still alive, usually with some man nuzzling the back of my neck.
More years intervened, and my relationship with the telephone stayed stubbornly dysfunctional. In my early thirties, during the years when I was drinking like someone was holding a stopwatch, I hid my phone from myself so I couldn’t drunkenly pick it up by accident. When it rang, I reacted to it like a bomb or a snake or one of those bombs that bursts into snakes. The voicemail box was consistently full; I didn’t want to hear the worried messages from my mother or the voicemail from some drug dealer that I had lead on to get some Xanax, my favorite palindrome. I sunk deeper into silence, calling myself an introvert when really I just didn’t want to talk because I was completely stoned and I didn’t want to have to think about you.
Then, recovery. I realize that the transition is abrupt there, but that’s exactly how it feels. It wasn’t like stepping out of a cave, it was like having someone lift the cave off of you, and I panicked in the exposure. Suddenly, there were people calling me. This is the thing that happens; when you come into recovery, everyone wants your phone number, and your phone is suddenly a thing that connects you to other people who know that you are having a rough Tuesday, or that you haven’t been to a meeting in a few days, or that you had a doctor’s appointment and how did that go? It is a thing. It’s weird.
I started clocking my phone. Sure, the calls from women who gave a shit about me were cool, but my phone was also a direct line to a hit of attention, a text or a message from some dude I met online. When I started online dating, I made the first guy I went out with call me first, believing that I have some sort of Jodi Foster Silence of the Lambs level of psychological acumen that would allow me to deduce if this was a crazy person I was meeting for coffee (note: I do not have that level of psychological acumen and it was indeed a crazy person I was meeting for coffee). I had a hard time remembering that the man on the other end of the line was potentially as much a fabrication as my Lola, 36-24-36 and ready to tell you what you wanted to hear.
Today, my phone is mostly exciting to me because of this blog, and I check it in the mornings the way you would check the underside of the Christmas tree, looking to see if anyone has paid digital attention to me while I was sleeping. Like everyone else everywhere, I am in my screens. Except sometimes I need to pretend I’m not. Once a year, I try to go someplace where my phone won’t work, where the messages and emails and Facebook notifications will pile up in drifts like leaves, just to give my voice a break, just to stop talking. It feels good sometimes to just let the fucking thing ring.