When he got my name tattooed on his hip, we hadn’t met yet.
He was 50. I had just turned 30. He had a big job in the city at a law firm, lived on Long Island, and wore tailored suits to work. I assumed he was rich. He sounded rich. I was working as a telephone dominatrix from my ramshackle apartment deep in Jersey City and had just filed for bankruptcy. His voice was measured, wise. I liked him more than the others and more than I was supposed to.
My voice on the phone, was confident, lulling — often just a whisper. It was one of my trademarks and how I controlled them. I was good at it. The other women on the line thought the guys would spend more money on you if you yelled at them. They were mostly wrong. One of my best clients, a shy music professor from England who had six pet rats, left me five stars and this comment on my site one time: “I’d sell my house, quit my job and crawl across glass to hear that voice.” Hyperbole? Maybe, but I liked it. I like to be good at things.
It was my full-time job to talk to men and take them on an “It’s A Small World”-like boat ride around the idea of what it would feel like to submit to a woman. They wanted to feel a woman over them, more powerful than them – but not in real life. Only in imagination, through a digital switchboard of anonymity and in voice alone. Sometimes the men wanted to be feminized and made to wear women’s clothing or forced to be with other men. Sometimes I’d ask them to crawl on their hands and knees across the floor while we talked or to lick the heels of my imaginary leather boots. I would tell them to spank themselves for being very, very bad boys – and they ate it up for breakfast. It wasn’t a perfect scenario, not being in the same room or whatever, but neither one of us ever really thought they’d do much of what I’d asked them to do anyway. That was part of it, maybe. Safer.
Then, after our little journey through their psyche, the calls would end with them screaming out some version of “Yes, Mistress. Thank you, Mistress,” or they’d just hang up on me when they were done, filled with regret, hearing the dull hum of their normal lives creeping back in at the end of their two dollar and ninety-nine cent per-minute dreams. They’d go back to living their dude lives and try to keep their perversions on lockdown. They’d forget about me — until the feelings rumbled up again. And they always did. I made an ok living.
In many ways, I was the perfect candidate for work like this — depressed, angry, “unfit for a real job” (or at least that’s what the last boss I had before I got into this work had said about me). My 20s had been spent trying to figure out how to live after my mother died from breast cancer — which she had battled in some form or fashion from the time I was ten years old. It was like some giant pause button descended on me that I was always battling to break out of. Stuck in amber and heavily medicated, it was hard to do much more than sleep 14 or 16 hours a day and ride the wild Paxil waves that beat me down many days. I often I thought I’d be better off with her, wherever she was that wasn’t here.
But I guess I deep down really wanted to find a way to keep going because I figured out a way to make enough money to live by doing work that I could do from bed, under the sheets, in the dark – night or day. I found work that accidentally lifted me up and kind of saved my life. To these anonymous men, who were seeking a woman to worship, I became a goddess. A master of hearts and minds and dicks. I was the most beautiful woman in the world when we talked, when their own minds filled in the blanks of who I was and what I would be for them. I loved it. It was a drug and a performance. “You’re dumb, and I’m special,” I’d say to them, and they loved me more for it. Before long, after nights and hours of listing out all the ways I was better than anyone else, I almost started to believe it.
This newfound confidence bubbled up right around the time that my talks with this wealthy-ish, Jewish-ish, business man started to deepen. We spoke about our fears and our disappointments. He told me about the awkward surprise birthday party his wife threw for him, his 10-year-old son in therapy. I told him about the years since my mother died, my own struggles with anxiety and how I was afraid to get a real job ever again. He told me that I had real skills, even if they weren’t clear to me just yet, but he could see them. He told me that if I could “harness the powers of the phone work and put them into a traditional work context, I’d be unstoppable.” He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He was like a life coach. Who bent over and did stuff to his butt when I told him to. The calls got longer, and we laughed a lot. We were pushing the limits. It felt more dangerous than any fantasy that came before it. You were never supposed to really like them, and you were never supposed to really meet them. I found myself often thinking about both.
I remember him telling me that he was committed to gaining my trust. He wanted to be worthy of me, he said. He wanted to know how he could prove it.
He deposited five thousand dollars into my bank account with a teller at the Washington Mutual on East 9th Street while I listened on the phone.
I started to test him with little tasks for fun. It was so easy to say things, but what would he really do? How far would he go? My alarm clock broke, so I asked him to become my new one. He rang me at the same time every morning to wake me up. Nine a.m. If I wanted to continue sleeping, I’d say “snooze please,” and he’d ring me back ten minutes later. Like regular life, that sometimes went on through four or five snoozes. Sometimes he’d have to leave meetings with ten or fifteen people just to keep ringing me back.
I sent him to Times Square, so I could see him on one of those free public web cameras that people view from around the world. At the appointed time, he got right in front of the camera and a display of postcards and I LOVE NY t-shirts and kneeled. He kissed the ground while we talked on the phone. I heard the whirring of the city and the sirens, and I watched on the screen from my apartment with my mouth hung wide open. There he was. Balding. Tan. Mine, if I wanted. He bent on the street, and I swooned.
I’d been getting stronger during those days we’d spent circling around each other, and, after a few strange twists and turns of fate, I suddenly got an amazing opportunity to move to Portland, Oregon to study advertising at arguably one of the best ad agencies in the world (“Just Do It,” you know the one). When I told him I wasn’t sure if I could go, I just didn’t have the money to move, he said that wasn’t an option and that he wanted to give me the money. I had to go. He was right. He deposited five thousand dollars into my bank account with a teller at the Washington Mutual on East 9th Street while I listened on the phone. That was the first day he learned my real name. As he filled out the deposit slip, I revealed it, letter by letter like a polaroid developing right in front of him. I had to trust him; there was no other choice. L. U. I. S. S. A. C. H. E. K. O. W. S. K. Y. He sounded it out. He laughed and put his money on me.
How was that not enough? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t. Money was easy. I needed more.
I’m not sure where the idea came from, but it came fast and clear and then I asked him, sweetly, “Will you please, pretty please, get my name on you forever.”
He agreed instantly. This was the gauntlet, and he wanted what was on the other side: me.
The day it happened, I was in Portland, alone in an office conference room with floor to ceiling glass walls, talking to him, out loud, on one of those speakerphones that look like a spaceship — and he was in NY. He called me at the beginning of the tattoo session, and I heard the very first moment the woman cut my name into his skin. The buzz of the fluorescent office lights sung over my head as the sound of the tattoo drill cranking filled the room, along with his small moans and sighs, trying to eat his pain. I held my breath and bit my lip. I cried, hard, but didn’t let him know. Was this love? It felt like love. I heard the tattoo artist ask him, “You haven’t ever met her, have you?” as the needle went in deep. Neither of us knew how she knew. Maybe it really was that obvious to everyone but us. When it was over, he sent me a photo of it. There it was. What I wanted. I gasped quietly as I sat at my desk, pretending everything was the same.
When he got my name tattooed on his hip, we were still just voices on the phone. We hadn’t met yet – and then we did. Two months later in San Francisco. He was on a business trip, and it was my 31st birthday. There was lots to celebrate. The first moment we were together, he kneeled at my feet. After that, we met again, a few months later back in New York. He put me up at the W and wore a dog collar to dinner. On that trip, he told me he loved me. Then we met once more in LA – where we ate at the Ivy on Robertson and he predicted that this LA sparkle would one day not be so special, that it would just be my normal life (and then one day much later, like magic, it was).
That year in Portland blew by quickly, and when we weren’t meeting up in cities coast to coast, we were talking morning and night and imagining how it would go when we were in the same place, at the same time. It was all still just a fantasy but getting more real by the minute.
The day I flew back home to New York to return for good, he was waiting for me in the airport, smiling so big with two dozen roses in hand and a limo waiting for me – a real one, black and stretch, the kind that you might have taken to senior prom. I flinched, the car was loud and ridiculous, but it was a grand gesture like no one before him had ever made. I imagined that maybe this was just what real love for me would look like – dangerous, embarrassing, messy, wild, imbalanced.
I got into the car with an open heart, unsure of what would come next, but trusting deeply that he would love me, worship me, and maybe even heal me, and knowing that he was trusting me to lead him to good places and to punish him for all the crimes and failures of his life – real and imagined. As I saw the skyline come back into focus, I hoped that maybe that would be enough.
Image: Isabella Giancarlo