Friday Night at Debra Jo’s Phone Sex Emporium

by Amy Rossi Read author interview September 2, 2019

And the girls remember I’m coming from my test, my minor medical procedure, so they’ve left a heating pad and a bowl of Sandy’s homemade chocolate pudding by my headset, in my usual chair. I keep calling it that, a minor medical procedure. Everyone knows that means woman stuff, something that begins with a pinch and then some pressure. So much of the female reproductive system summed up in two sensations.

They would have understood if I hadn’t come in tonight, but what was I going to do at home – sit there with the same cramps, alone? Most of the other girls have husbands or kids or both so they come here to work in private together. A couple teachers grade between calls. They update our word bank, keep it fresh, prepare us for any fetish. We can talk about bondage, feet, golden showers properly. That’s what you get when you call Whispers.

Friday is a slow night, and I work my way through the bowl of pudding, waiting. When my phone rings, Debra Jo announces she’s connecting me to a man who wants “just a nice normal girl.”

The most elaborate fetish of them all.

I adjust my heating pad as he asks what I’m wearing. The answer isn’t lingerie; it’s never lingerie. Sometimes I say a bathrobe or cutoffs and a bra. Tonight: knee socks, underwear, a tank top. It’s about being believable, not factual.

In a different corner of the room, I hear Earl murmuring into his headset, a low rumble of soothing sounds, the words indistinct. Though he’s not the only man on staff, he’s the only one who comes into the office. He drinks out of the same Cathy cartoon mug every shift and sometimes will leave a comic strip clipping for one of us to find.

I keep my voice raspy, seductive as I speak to the man on the end of my line, call him baby, name places on his body a nice normal girl would put her hands, her mouth. I try to mean it, I always do, but it feels so removed, routine. Like the nurse today insisting I had to pee in a cup before they could do anything.

After an unsuccessful attempt that resulted in nothing in the cup and just a bit more than nothing on my hand, I had asked why. “We can’t do this if you might be pregnant,” she’d finally said. I told her I wasn’t; still, she wouldn’t budge. “It’s standard operating procedure.”

I was so tired and my bladder was so empty that I told her the truth: I haven’t had sex for three years.

She didn’t meet my eyes again.

When I hang up, Earl has gone quiet. I can’t hear Sandy either. Just the clack of knitting needles and the buzz of the microwave.

It’s quieter now than when Debra Jo started this place back in the ’90s, she’s told us, now that there’s free internet porn and all. Yet, there’s something about connecting with a voice on the other end of the line. Something about the space to be in another life. And it’s safer, too: you can talk it all out and not worry about heartbreak or sexually transmitted infections, like the woefully common virus, the one we all have apparently and you might not even know you’re carrying until surprise: we need to check your cervix for cancer.

I wait around for several more calls to come my way, but I can’t keep anyone on the phone long enough to hit the goal time of thirty minutes. These nights happen to all of us, and anyway, the last bus will be by soon. I wash the pudding bowl and leave it for Sandy. Thank you, I scrawl on a sticky note. I don’t have to say more. Here, it’s only the talk you want to make.

It feels colder than predicted outside, and I can’t tell if it’s the absence of the heating pad or if we’re headed for an early winter. I fish in my pockets for my gloves, trying to decide if I should treat myself to a cab or get the bus as planned. The cramps are back, which makes the decision harder and easier. I picture my drafty apartment. No snacks. Nothing there. The bus is less comfortable but will take more of my night.

It’s probably time for a cat.

“Sylvie!” I turn to see Debra Jo jogging toward me, gray hair flying as she holds out my scarf. “You forgot this.”

I thank her as I loop the scarf around my neck. A knot for extra warmth. “See you Tuesday,” I say.

“Wait.” Debra Jo reaches out to stop me, and I flinch. “Are you okay?”

I don’t know what to say. I can’t answer about my minor medical procedure – the ache from the biopsy and the waiting for the result – without covering the rest, the string of nights that got me here, names blurring together, unattached but not alone. And if I had known those days would suddenly end, that a dry spell would become months would become years, that while I was creating a fantasy for others on the phone and for myself in bars and bathrooms, everyone else was settling down with something real, would I have been more careful, or would I have just done it more?

Debra Jo waits. When the answer doesn’t come, she wraps her arms around me. My body is stiff at first, but then I fall into her hug: the warmth of someone else doing the caring and the carrying. And now that I’ve let it go, it’s going to be up to her to pull away.

About the Author:

Amy Rossi lives and writes in North Carolina. Her work has appeared in places such as Wigleaf, Barrelhouse, and matchbook.

About the Artist:

Stacy Guinn is an Illinois-based photographer whose work explores the transience of life and the traces of emotion we leave behind in places, clothing, and forgotten possessions.