For the man with the rubber bands I was Madame Katherine. A green-eyed, red-headed English dominatrix dressed in slick leather and killer heels. In reality I was a black, dreadlocked and barefooted college student in a broom skirt and faded brown tank top looking over a pile of laundry at my alarm clock wondering what the hell I was going to say that would keep him on the phone for a minimum of ten minutes and wouldn’t disgust me too much.

I have three rubber bands, a belt and some ice cubes. Tell me what to do.

During my two days of training Heather, my mentor, named the four basic categories of men she encountered. There were the kinkies, the sneakies, the boyfriends and the regulars. It was just my luck that my first solo call was a kinky. I was questioning my sanity when the phone rang. Being a phone sex operator sounded good in theory. I could choose the callers I would accept. I decided my own hours and avoided the commute to work in the ridiculous extremes of Massachusetts weather that threatened in some months to steam me alive and in others to freeze the breath out of me. The job seemed interesting and at times amusing when I had Heather leading the way, but when my brief apprenticeship ended and my roommates left the apartment for their regular day jobs I was alone at a crossroads. Was I the kind of girl who could do this job or not? I could ignore the phone and do the dishes. Maybe vacuum the rug in the living room and go to the library for a few hours. Then, later, I could relieve my roommates’ anxieties over our nightly game of Scrabble by informing them that I had chickened out. Before I thought about it too deeply I employed a mantra given to me by a well-loved and badly behaved cousin: ‘When in doubt, do it.’ I answered the phone. A woman from the call center gave me a number and informed me flatly that a customer was looking for a dominatrix – could I accept the call? I dialled the number. I regretted not going to an adult bookstore to research domination as Heather had advised. What if I made him do the wrong thing? Was there a protocol I was supposed to follow? When he made his request I almost hung up realizing how much I didn’t know. Why rubber bands and ice cubes? I was stymied, but Madame Katherine’s debut performance surprised me. She unleashed her full fury on him, emphasizing each pronoun and pausing dramatically between sentences while I prayed silently that the gods of all things sexy would help me get this guy’s rocks off.

Madame Katherine is how you will address me. You will not speak unless I ask you a direct question. Get that belt and bend over, you revolting little man.

I am bending over, Madame Katherine.

Did I ask you a question? You will learn not to speak until I tell you to. Bend all the way over, get that bottom right up and smack it … hard … ten times… use the belt … and I want to hear you count out loud … and thank me.

He didn’t make it all the way to ten minutes. He was done after I had him painfully tangled in the rubber bands but before I could even get to the ice cubes. My ignorance paid off, forcing me to be creative. The rubber band man became a weekly caller. I later surmised that there was no need to worry about the correct order of rubber and ice, the thrill for him lay in the pronunciation of his humiliation.

 

*

 

I am an American-born Zimbabwean. My family left the U.S. to go back to Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, when I was an unusually vocal toddler. The one thing my mother hated more than my drawling American accent was the clipped white Rhodesian twang my siblings were acquiring from their classmates at their recently integrated schools. Her solution was to send us all to speech and drama lessons where, while making us recite poetry and deliver lengthy monologues, our teacher modified our speech to echo that of our original oppressors. So we traded in the cacophony of Shona speakers taught English in America with Rhodie overtones for the soothing, internationally-valued English-flavoured notes of privileged children from a former colony.

Heather, my mentor, was a pleasantly deep-voiced, happily married stay-at-home mom. I knew the measurements and hair colour of all her phone characters but never asked what she herself looked like. I imagined nondescript brown hair and friendly eyes. An outfit of jeans and a sweatshirt spattered with the remains of toddler breakfast. Each time we spoke, Heather would giggle and apologize for the background noises. While trying to catch up on household tasks she couldn’t do silently – washing dishes, making beds or pulling the trash out – a businesslike Heather taught me the fundamentals: how to slide a forefinger between my teeth and cheek to make the perfect fucking and sucking sounds. A cordless phone, she said, was a necessity; the second was a notebook to track my callers and record call times, and the last thing she suggested was a small handheld mixer for the sex-toy noises. I listened in on her calls for two days with growing interest, then open-mouthed shock, and at times, I admit, arousal. Heather was a skilled phone sex worker. She got straight down and dirty, and unlike our private instructional conversations, there was no giggling when she was with her clients. An expert at verbal foreplay, she placed forbidden words with hard endings strategically in her sentences. In Heather I found a kindred spirit. She was easy with sex, there was no guilt surrounding it so she talked it effortlessly. She quickly figured out what new clients wanted and accepted their desires without judgement. She teased them with it. She expressed how much she wanted it too. Finally, with perfect timing, she would say exactly what they wanted to hear and would invariably be rewarded with the sounds of climaxes so intense that had I managed to close my mouth at all during the call it would at that point be dropping open again. By the third or fourth call I had disassociated myself enough no longer to have any physical response and on the second day my shock had worn off too. I was confident, curious and eager to start.

 

*

 

I didn’t appreciate the effect my diction had on American men until working on the phones taking orders for 800-FLOWERS separated it from my brown face and Seventies-inspired outfits. Men sending flowers to wives, mothers or secretaries would place their orders, then discreetly ask where I was from with enough horniness to drop their voices an octave and make me aware that I was on to something. In the end, it was our daily pervert, the guy who dialled in repeatedly, who sealed it for me. I had heard the other girls squealing and flinging off headsets in red-faced disapproval before standing up in their cubicles to announce to the headset-free supervisor pacing between the cubicles that they had just hung up on the dreaded one. The need for public acknowledgement of the mini-violation of their chaste phone lines annoyed me. When he was eventually put through to my line I knew who it was before he spoke. He breathed heavily into the phone:

‘Tell me, tell me,’ – he was almost wheezing with excitement and I could hear a suspicious slurping sound getting louder in the background – ‘what colour are your panties?’

Madame Katherine answered before I had even created her.

‘No. You stop what you are doing and tell me. What colour are yours?’

He hung up, my cubicle mate raised her mercilessly plucked eyebrows at me and that evening, on the way home, I stopped for a newspaper advertising for phone sex operators.

 

*

 

I’m laying here in my panties. I am about to slip them off so I can spread my legs wide and imagine your big cock going up inside me.

For the sneaky afternoon callers I was the brunette English exchange student. Heather had described these men with significant others, calling on the sly at lunchtime or between the close of business and the commute home. I found conversation with sneakies to be effortless, verbal vanilla-porn that I could deliver without taking my focus from my schoolwork. The exchange student I created was Veronica, a student nurse, if the sneaky sounded like he needed caring. Or she would be Tara the photography student, for those I suspected leaned toward exhibitionism. The sneaky callers didn’t differ much from one to the other. It wasn’t long before I could be found leaning back in my chair with my slippered feet propped up on the kitchen table, between a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and a longhand draft of an essay due at the end of the week, pausing to return the call of a daytime sneaky as easily as I would pause to get a bowl of cornflakes. Cereal bowl would go in the sink, milk in the fridge and cornflakes in the pantry. Phone would go back on the charger, caller’s notes and time went into my notebook. Then back to my essay without having lost my train of thought because neither cornflakes nor sneaky required my full attention. Each one wanted to know that the body and face at the other end of the line was incredibly sexy. He wanted to know that he was so big and so hard and that Tara/Veronica couldn’t get enough of him. He was so hot laying there naked that he had her reaching for her vibrator, which, thanks to Heather, was given an impressive buzz by the hand-held mixer picked up from the thrift store. Simple repetition worked well for the sneakies because all thought processes were being conducted below the waist. Riding on the benefits afforded me by the accent, I could often get away with picking a nasty phrase and saying it over and over again with increasing intensity.

Hello darling, how was work today? Are you ready for some company now or do you want me to call back after you’ve had a chance to relax a bit?

Early evening brought the boyfriends: lonely, often nerdy and always needy. Calling almost daily and staying on the phone for an hour or two, they were dependable moneymakers. Their fantasy was simple: they wanted to know that they mattered to a beautiful woman. I pretended that I had initiated all calls – then listened, counselled, and encouraged.
On day three, my first solo working day, Heather had invited me to participate in a ‘party’ with another girl and a regular before I started to work alone. It was in thinking through that call that I discovered my most effective weapon.

I have a secret to tell you. I know I should have asked you before inviting my friend to come over but I knew you would want it as much as I do. Mmmmmm, I’ve got two fingers inside … Can you hear how wet I’m getting telling you about it?

The regulars Heather described were shy callers looking for us to give them a fantasy. They were rarely forthcoming about what they wanted to hear and were mostly comfortable with party calls. Working that party call, I did some quick amateur analysis. I figured that a man who removes himself from the picture and claims to be turned on by hearing or watching girls may be trying to imagine what a girl feels. I had it in my power to give him the freedom to go ahead and open the door, just for a minute.

I want you to stick it in me, way deep inside and don’t turn around because my friend is coming in. He wants to play too. Ooooh, baby, he’s so hard and it’s all for you.

So if my regulars were mostly straight bi-curious guys I wondered how many of my other callers, with the exception of the boyfriends, could use a quick peek in the closet. My suspicions were confirmed. The introduction of a well-endowed man became my number-one seller.

Even though Madame Katherine became dangerous given a few ice cubes and I now knew 101 ways to delight using rubber bands, the novelty of my job didn’t take long to wear off. The sneakies, kinkies and regulars all began to sound the same. The boyfriends became irritating. Uninspired by the predictability of my callers, I abandoned the rules and started experimenting. I continued to pull my regulars in and out of the closet. I dominated my sneakies and asked my boyfriends if they ever thought about getting spanked. I diverted a sneaky’s attention from his erection by asking what he did for a living. (He was an English professor, who became a very helpful-for-homework intellectual boyfriend.) I found myself getting so accustomed to picking up on sexual hints that I would meet a man in my real life and after a few minutes of conversation reduce him to what kind of a caller he would be.

 

*

 

Stop begging. Did you bring all the things I asked for?

I have the helmet, and a bandanna.

And the lotion?

I have that too.

Tell your brother if he covers his hair the helmet won’t pull on it, he has to moisturize his eczema before he gets on the field, I don’t care if he’s a boy. If Dad has to work late, I’ll be there to take him to football. Tell Imani to ask her mom about sleeping over.

Ice may have forever lost its innocence for me and I keep rubber bands out of the reach of children. But for my family, sixteen years after Madame Katherine, Tara and Veronica, I am a devoted, pearl-earring-and-sweater-set conservative wife and mother. In many small ways I am reinvented. My locks are twisted to the root and neatly curled and my clothes are all firsthand. No one in my current life, besides my old roommates, knows about my college stint as a phone sex worker. Then my parents and extended family were all far away. I was not tethered to their expectations. The idea that one day I would be the axis of a household whose stability depended on my never making doubtful decisions was a possibility even further away than my family.

A few weeks ago in the grocery store, between the oranges and bananas, I reluctantly confessed my phone sex days to my husband. How could I explain away talking grown men through spanking their own bottoms? We had just celebrated our ninth anniversary and so I had mentally armed myself with reasons for waiting so long to tell him. I kept bagging oranges, not wanting to face his reaction, until I realized that he could not speak because of the effort it took to breathe though his laughter.

 

 Photograph by Kevin Saff
Bani Abidi | Interview
All the Good Help