I’ve done a lot of things to earn a crust. At 13 I wielded the great power that came with occupying middle management at an ice-cream shop. ‘Now, Elise,’ I took pleasure in saying, ‘you know it’s only the top girls like me and Leeane who are allowed to put sanitiser in the scoop water.’
At 22 I worked as an English teacher in Japan for adult students who refused to talk, and the classes took place in tiny cubicles assembled like Bentham’s Panopticon.
‘Today, you kicked a student,’ my supervisor announced gravely.
‘No I didn’t!’ I protested. ‘I was jiggling my leg and my boot casually brushed their trousers! And how do you know anyway?’
‘We always know,’ she replied.
When I was 25 I worked briefly for an Australian Senator whose receptionist had taken long-service leave. Rather than do anything productive, I spent the better part of three months arguing with detractors on the telephone. ‘Van Nguyen had enough heroin on him to kill 21,000 Australians!’ they’d yell. ‘You’re stupid,’ I’d retort. Engaging in such a fiercely intellectual battle of wills made me feel alive.
But for all the ups and downs on my humble journey towards financial insecurity, no job elicits more interest than my turn as a phone-sex worker.
I’d moved out of home at the start of my second year at university, and the realities of fending for myself were moving into sharp focus. ‘Vegetables’ had become a thing of the past, a distant memory associated with heated living rooms, clean sheets and mothers who made sure you didn’t go to bed with wet hair. My housemate, Sim, and I had taken to cooking the same thing every night – a bag of pasta with a jar of pesto mixed in and half a block of grated cheese.
After dinner, we’d retreat to the back step to smoke cigarettes like the self-assured adults we felt certain we were. On the nights our boyfriends upset us (and Lord knows how we even had them), we’d disappear into Sim’s room and drink vodka straight from the bottle while Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Adia’ played on repeat behind us.
We are so grown up, we’d murmur to each other, reclining in poses we best thought reflected the bored wisdom of our years. But it had to end. I didn’t have Sim’s metabolism or her genes. I didn’t look like Cate Blanchett in profile. I didn’t look effortlessly chic in my Bonds t-shirt and bootleg jeans. I looked like a freckled dugong in dire need of some vitamins and a decent bra. And for those things, I needed cash.
WANTED: Creative, open-minded ladies for friendly chat line. Enjoy flexible working hours, the potential for excellent salary and the freedom of working at home. Apply within.
The subtext might have been hidden behind a veneer of chirpy professionalism, but I was nobody’s fool. I wasn’t born yesterday. I didn’t have sucker written across my forehead. No, I cracked that code right open. This was no ordinary chat line, set up to service all the lonely folk out there who just wanted a nice lady to workshop Harry Potter theories with, or debate the relative merits of savoury snacks versus sweet. This was a sex thing. They wanted creative, open-minded ladies to chat to men about sex. Harry Potter might come up, but it would likely be in the context of Sirius Black needing to be disciplined by a stern and uncompromising Professor McGonagall.
I could be that person, I reasoned. I could get inside the mindset of a disciplinarian like McGonagall, should it come up. I was creative. I was definitely open-minded, and I knew this because a few months prior I had pulled my top off in a glorious display of authoritarians-be-damned pique at Unibar and danced boisterously to Christina Aguilera’s ‘Come on Over’ in my brassiere. On a chair.
Better still, I now had some kind of practical experience with the whole sex thing. After spending my entire adolescence in the barren wilderness of the chronically untouched, I’d finally found a boy willing to not just press his lips against mine but his groin as well. It made a nice change from my school days, which had been characterised by my innate understanding that I was not the kind of girl who could expect a boy to find her physically attractive.
No, I’d been giving blow jobs and engaging in careful, consensual sex for the better part of two months. Who better than me to bestow their skills of lewd repartee and innuendo on the good men of Australia?
Ripping out the ad, I marched into the refec where my best friend Melissa and I both worked. I employ the term ‘worked’ loosely, as our main activities involved giving away large discounts to random students on a whim, using the PA system to recite awful poetry and auctioning off dates with our long-suffering co-worker, Matty.
‘Melissa,’ I began. ‘How would you like to earn some extra money?’ I presented the ad to her with a flourish.
‘Sounds interesting,’ she said. ‘It’s a sex thing, right?’
It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to do the sex thing by myself. I wanted to do it with someone I could laugh about it with afterwards, and exchange battle stories. Of all my friends, Melissa was the most unflappable. She would take to it like a duck to water.
‘Let’s do it,’ she said, and handed me a yiros resplendent in garlic sauce. It was at least three hours until pasta time. I needed to keep my strength up.
‘This can’t be the place,’ I laughed. ‘It’s too normal looking!’
‘What were you expecting,’ Melissa asked, ‘a leather-draped, gated dungeon with a giant neon sign declaring “GET IT HERE”? It’s Kensington, not Montmartre.’
It did sound ridiculous. But the house we’d pulled up outside hadn’t a trace of sex lair about it. It had a neat pebble driveway and a bougainvillea tree. Its welcome mat actually said ‘WELCOME!’ in jaunty letters. There was an angel figurine sitting next to it.
‘If they offer you anything to drink,’ Melissa warned, ‘don’t take it. We don’t want to wake up in the basement.’
‘Girls! Come in, come in!’ A chenille-clad woman of about 65 was standing before us, beaming. She was wearing what appeared to be two kittens on her feet but on closer inspection turned out to be fluffy slippers. She led us through to the living room and sat us down on a couch in a room so cute, it was the equivalent of a puppy made out of gingerbread mating with a Kleenex ad and sneezing out an elephant learning to walk.
‘Now,’ she started. ‘Can I get you girls anything to drink?’
‘No, thank you,’ we said in unison.
‘Well, if you change your minds, just let me know!’ The woman sat down and popped her feet up on the pouffe, then proceeded to tell us about numerology and spirit guides.
Maria couldn’t have been further from our idea of a sex-work madam if she’d tried. For a start, she was obsessed with what she called ‘power numbers’ and her house was filled with porcelain angels. They stared at you from every available surface, in amongst the framed photographs of her grandchildren playing sport and posing in ballet costumes. She carefully explained that we would be paid monthly for providing ‘fantasy chat services’. Our monthly cheques would include a numerology reading from her.
‘And could you tell us more about the actual job?’
‘Well,’ Maria said, ‘it’s very simple really. You’ll receive calls at home, where you’ll be alerted via an electronic message telling you which line the call’s coming through on. It’s your job to keep the caller on the line for as long as possible, and there are a number of tricks I like to use to make that happen.’
She then proceeded to list her staple supply of lines that had proved popular with her clientele. These ranged from the more descriptive, ‘Oh it’s so big, how will I fit it in my mouth?’ to the more immediate ‘Oh yes, fuck me just like that, I need it so bad! *groan* *grunt* *moan*’ (‘Just imagine you’re exercising!’). Then there was the more abstract re-enactment of the sex noises themselves. I’ll tell you this much – you haven’t really lived until you’ve sat in an eastern-suburban, middle-class bungalow and watched a grandmother with kittens on her feet grip her cheeks and flutter them back and forth to impersonate the squidgy rhythm of penetrative sex.
‘Are there any rules?’ Melissa asked. ‘You know, things we’re not allowed to do?’
‘Excellent question!’ Maria exclaimed, patting Melissa’s hand like she was a three-year-old who’d just learned to use the toilet. ‘There are only two things you’re not allowed to do, and that’s paedophilia and bestiality. Of course, we can skirt around issues like rape fantasies, but the other two are a no go.’
Melissa and I glanced at each other.
‘So,’ Maria went on, ‘it’s 50 cents for every minute you keep them on the phone, which means you can make up to $30 an hour!’
I took a deep breath. The most I’d ever earned was $19 an hour working catering functions, and even then the likelihood of someone vomiting on me from excessive alcohol consumption was too much for it to be worthwhile.
‘We’ll do it,’ I said.
‘I knew you would!’ Maria announced. ‘My spirit guide told me to watch out for you two!’
Thus began a heady six months of nights spent waiting by the phone for boys to call. It wasn’t unlike high school actually, except this time instead of grunting one-note conversations about what happened at recess, you’d get grunting one-note conversations about what they’d like to put in your recess.
As I predicted, Melissa excelled. Not only did she manage to score the more lucrative hours of eight until midnight, she managed to secure a number of regulars. I, on the other hand, was relegated to the notorious graveyard shift. Sad, pathetic husbands who had to wait until their wives had gone to sleep before crawling into a cupboard, working themselves up into a state of sexually-inspired self loathing and calling you at the last minute so they could erupt at the sound of your voice.
‘Hi, this is Amy. What would–’
It was not an inspiring time. While Melissa was cashing grand cheques of at least $600 a month and fielding offers of marriage from the regulars who’d decided they’d fallen in love with ‘Sophie’, my cheques often totalled less than $10. Eventually, I just stopped cashing them. It seemed like less effort to watch Fried Green Tomatoes again and eat a bag of crisps washed down with box wine. What had seemed like a jaunty escapade at the time was rapidly turning into a burden of boredom.
Sure, it was funny to tell your friends about the guys who wanted you to talk about pooing on them or tying them up, or wanted you to pretend to be a crab and nip them with your crablike claws. (‘Nip! Nip!’ Melissa had said, calling me later to fret over whether or not she’d broken the whole bestiality rule.) It was amusing to be threatened with physical violence after one of Melissa’s regulars mistook me for her despite my protestations and then called me back to accuse me of cheating him out of his hard-earned money.
But it was unbearably sad to receive calls from men not even interested in sex. Lonely men with no one to talk to, who wanted someone not only to share in the minutiae of their day but also their passions and dreams at a starting price of $3.95 a minute. All these years later, it still makes me sad to think that there are people for whom human contact is in short supply.
I decided to pack it in after one too many men gave me the response to their ultimate fantasy.
‘I want you to suck my dick.’
‘Okay,’ I sighed. ‘But only if you promise to come in my mouth.’
I gripped my cheek and fluttered it the way Maria had shown me. I said all the right things, like how I’d never seen one that big, and how sucking cock was my favourite thing to do in the whole world, and please would he give me some more. He groaned and spluttered, jerked and yelled and within the space of a few minutes it was all over.
I looked at the phone. I estimated that the approximate two minutes and 45 seconds I’d just spent fellating someone’s ego had earned me the grand sum of $1.50. That wouldn’t even pay for the jar of pesto that still found its way into my dinner every night.
The phone rang a final time that night, at around 4am. Nestled next to my head, it roused me from my sleep. I answered, yawning through the automated message until I heard tell-tale heavy breathing make its way down the line.
‘He … Hello?’ Someone panted. ‘Are … are you there? I want to fu–’
‘NRGHGHGHGHGH!’ I grunted.
I hung up, unplugged the phone and went back to sleep.