My new apartment was a one-bedroom, second-story walk-up in Queens, on the border of Astoria and Long Island City, four stops to Manhattan on the N train. It had been trashed pretty badly by the previous occupants, the only reason it wasn't gone before I came across the listing. When the landlord showed me the place he apologized for its condition, but I was desperate. I offered him a deal. I'd repaint the whole thing floor to ceiling, lay new tile in the kitchen, tear up the worn purple carpet in the living room, and sand and refinish the wood floors — if he'd waive the security deposit and give me the first three months rent-free. He looked at me as if I were insane, but I'd done the math — I'd save more than two grand — and when I extended my hand, he shook it.
I removed the carpet only to discover little drifts of mouse turds along the walls, plus cockroach corpses by the dozen. The new paint job required multiple coats to cover the underlying shade of Pepto-Bismol pink. I rented a large circular sander for the wood floors and applied sealer every other day in strips so I could move from room to room without ruining the finish. The work took almost every spare waking minute I had over three weeks, and the smells of paint and polyurethane were a long time in fading. Still, it was satisfying to live alone again — no roommate, no feral cats — and in a neighborhood where I had no trouble blending in: middle class, ethnically diverse, with a Mediterranean flavor thanks to the one of the largest expat populations of Greeks in the world.
Though I finally had a set of rooms all my own, I found my new freedom slightly unnerving. Unlike in Bed-Stuy, there were plenty of restaurants and bars and cafés within a short walk of my apartment. The options for whiling away an evening overwhelmed me with their variety; I couldn't seem to find the place to call mine, the place where a loner could sit cocooned in silence and remain unremarked-upon, unseen.
Committing to the life of a loner involves one difficulty above all others: even loners, perhaps especially loners, often find themselves horny. In New York whole industries thrived on the basis of this simple fact, and nowhere was this more evident than in the Village Voice classifieds. I began to study those pages with what I thought of as a detached and almost scholarly amusement, but one ad in particular kept calling to me with the promise of amateur phone sex. The very existence of amateur phone sex intrigued me. I'd always assumed it was a realm for professionals.
It wasn't long before I memorized the prerecorded greeting. I even learned to mimic the perky-bimbo inflections of the woman who recited it:
Thanks for calling the all-live, all-the-time phone line where ladies call free to share their fantasies with you. If you're under eighteen, you must hang up. . . .
Welcome to the exciting new way to talk one-on-one with the area's hottest students, housewives, and working girls for just thirty-five cents per minute, seventy-five for the first. . . .
I knew the city's hottest students, housewives, and working girls weren't sitting at home pressing speed-dial with one hand while petting themselves with the other, but when I called that first night I thought I might get lucky and connect with an introverted bombshell, a naughty librarian. We'd talk about music or books or the Kyoto Protocol. We'd choose a place to meet for a drink. We'd proceed to her place, or mine, and lick each other's privates in the dark.
Half the single people my age in New York were already using the Internet as a portal to erotic adventure, but I'd always been a little slow adopting new technologies. It was the new millennium and I was still using a manual typewriter.
Main menu: Press one for sexy recorded personals, or press two for live connections on the talk line.
I pressed two.
Press one to talk to women, or press two to talk to men.
I pressed one.
Live talk main menu: Press one to connect with callers who are on the line right now. Press two to record or update your dateline personals greeting.
I pressed one.
You have ninety seconds to describe who you are and what you're interested in. Take care with your privacy—no full names, addresses, or other information that could be abused by other callers. Here's your chance to make an introduction. The most intriguing greetings get the most responses, so make your ad as sexy as you can. Your privacy is guaranteed. Your greeting will play only to others who are on the talk line when you are. To remove your greeting, just hang up. You can rerecord as often as you need to, until you're satisfied. Start speaking at the tone. Press pound when you're done. Good luck.
I was drearily earnest at first. I stressed my status as a gainfully employed, suit-wearing monkey. I laid on the midwestern charm, the whole small-town-boy-in-the-big-city act. I waxed poetic about my love of music and books, going to museums, eating out. I was, in short, Prince Charming, a perfect gentleman straight from the script of a rom-com, just the push of a button away.
Welcome to the talk line!
Rarely have I heard such scorn. Women sent recorded messages in which they simply cackled at me. Some were incredulous: You're actually looking for a date? On this line? One even presumed to judge my anatomy: Come on, little boy, pull that itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie out of your pants and play with momma. ...
I hung up that first night completely demoralized. I wanted to be appalled at all the perverts and misfits on their telephones across the city — the heavy-breathers, the pre-op transsexuals, the women from the Bronx looking to play for pay — but I was mostly disappointed in myself. They, at least, were candid about what they wanted.
And what did I want? There's no way I could have been honest about that. What was I supposed to say: I need someone to sleep with me so I can tell the story of my brother's death? That would have had the virtue of being true, as if the truth were a virtue on a phone-sex line. Over the course of a few short-lived flings in the time since Dan's suicide, I'd discovered that sex emptied my mind of everything nonessential, and the one thing that remained essential, I thought, was the story of his suicide. Everything else was a dream or an anecdote. Nothing else meant a thing, not compared with the big story, and I just couldn't talk about it unless I'd bared myself in physical intimacy. Hard to imagine working that up as an attractive come-on, though: Hey, sweetheart, let's screw with our eyes closed and then snuggle up for some pillow talk about the mysteries of self-inflicted death. Will you listen if I tell you?
From All the Wrong Places by Philip Connors. Copyright 2015 by Philip Connors. Excerpted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company.